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Darvaza gas crater was created in the 1950s when a Soviet gas drilling rig fell into an underground cavern. The crater was set on fire shortly afterwards and has been burning ever since.

Turkmenistan's Darvaza Crater—created more than 40 years ago when the ground under a Soviet drilling rig gave way—has been burning for decades.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLYN DRAKE, PANOS  

Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published July 16, 2014

More than four decades ago, a gaping, fiery crater opened up in the desert of northern Turkmenistan (map), likely the result of a drilling mishap.

The Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell, still burns today, a surreal feature in an otherwise barren landscape.

Details on the origin of the sinkhole are sketchy, but the story goes that Soviet scientists set it on fire to burn off noxious gases after the ground under a drilling rig gave way. Perhaps the scientists underestimated the amount of fuel that lay below—Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world.

In November 2013, explorer and storm chaser George Kourounis, on an expedition funded partly by National Geographic and also supported by the travel company Kensington Tours, set out to be the first person to plumb the depths of the crater, which is 225 feet (69 meters) wide and 99 feet (30 meters) deep. (Related: "Diver 'Vanishes' in Portal to Maya Underworld.")

At the bottom he collected soil samples, hoping to learn whether life can survive in such harsh conditions—and perhaps shedding light on whether life could survive similar conditions elsewhere in the universe.

His harrowing plunge is featured on the National Geographic Channel series Die Trying, which airs tonight, July 16, at 10 p.m. EDT. Kourounis, who's based in Toronto, talked with National Geographic about his experience in Turkmenistan.

Darvaza, Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan: A camera man films George Kourounis as he prepares to enter the crater.
Explorer George Kourounis prepares to enter the flaming crater for the first time.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE VERSCHOOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS

Tell me how this project got started.

The place has always fascinated me. The story behind how it came into existence has been sort of shrouded in mystery, and there's no other place like it on Earth. It is very unique, in that there's no other place where there is this pit of burning methane that's being ejected from the ground at high pressure. It's fascinating, it's visually stunning, and there's a lot that we can learn about this place.

What did you do to prepare for the expedition? How did you protect yourself?

There was about a year and a half of preparation and planning. Getting permission, getting all the logistics in order, getting the team assembled, getting the [National Geographic] Expeditions Council on board. In order to prepare, there was a lot of practice at first. We set up [a] rope-rigging system over a local river gorge and practiced out there several times, including with the full apparatus I was wearing: a heat-reflective suit, self-contained breathing apparatus, the climbing harness that I'm wearing. We had to get it custom-made out of Kevlar, because a regular climbing harness would just melt under the extreme heat.

I even went as far as to hire a stunt coordinator who does movie stunts for Hollywood films to light me on fire several times, in order to sort of prepare myself for not panicking being up close around flame.

At the Gates of Hell: George Kourounis and his team travel to Turkmenistan to see the mysterious crater of fire for the first time.

When you first set eyes on the crater, it's like something out of a science fiction film. You've got this vast, sprawling desert with almost nothing there, and then there's this gaping, burning pit ... The heat coming off of it is scorching. The shimmer from the distortion of it warping the air around it is just amazing to watch, and when you're downwind, you get this blast of heat that is so intense that you can't even look straight into the wind. You have to shield your face with your hand just standing at the crater's edge. Here I am thinking, Oh-kaaaay, maybe I've bitten off a bit more than I can chew.

Is the place open to visitors in general? Did you have bystanders checking it out?

We had a couple of little tourist outfits come by. Every now and then you get a random person driving past on a motorcycle, or a truck will go past, or some camels. But it is literally wide open. Once you're in the country, very few people go there ... But once you're there—if you can find the place—you can drive up, get out of your car, walk over to the edge, and jump right in, if you want. The choice is yours. And I'm so far the only person who has actually done that.

Darvaza, Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan: George Kourounis descends into the crater.
Kourounis descends into the crater wearing a heat-resistant suit and Kevlar harness.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL BYERS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS

So when you did go into the crater and collected your samples, what was that like?

It was—"surreal" isn't a strong enough word. When you take your first step off the edge, and you finally put all your weight on that rope, you're trusting every link in that chain of technology and teamwork. When you go out over, looking straight down, it's literally like another planet almost.

At the same time there [were] so many things that I had to do, these checklists of things—checking my air, clearing the ropes, gathering samples, preparing video, all of these things—that you don't really have time to get too scared. I mean it was scary stepping over the edge, but when you're at the bottom, it's just so beautiful.

I described it as a coliseum of fire—just everywhere you look it's thousands of these small fires. The sound was like that of a jet engine, this roaring, high-pressure, gas-burning sound. And there was no smoke. It burns very cleanly, so there's nothing to obscure your view. You can just see every little lick of flame. There were a few moments that I just literally had to stop, look around, and drink in the spectacle of where I was. I could see my teammates up on the crater rim, just these tiny specks lit by this fire. You feel very, very small and very vulnerable in a place like that.

Darvaza, Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan: George Kourounis feels the full impact of the heat from the crater.
Heat from the burning methane inside the crater can be felt at its edge.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE VERSCHOOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS

What did you think you were going to find in terms of the sampling, and what did you find?

Well, we were hoping to find signs of microbial life-forms that are thriving in the hot, methane-rich environment. Even if we found nothing, it still would have been a valid result and the expedition would have been worthwhile. But we were very fortunate. We did find some bacteria living at the bottom that are very comfortable living in those high temperatures, and the most important thing was that they were not found in any of the surrounding soil outside of the crater. So they're doing just fine in that little micro-ecosystem down there at the bottom of the crater. Now there wasn't a lot that was down there. We did find life, but it was sparse. But that point is moot, because it was a positive result. So we were just over the moon excited and so happy that we were able to verify that.

Outside of our solar system, there are planets that do resemble the conditions inside this pit, and [knowing that] can help us expand the number of places where we can confidently start looking for life outside of our solar system. It may be many, many years down the road, but now at least we know some new places where we can start looking.

Darvaza, Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan: George Kourounis and team work into the night.
The expedition team works into the night, searching for life inside the fiery crater.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE VERSCHOOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS

It seems to be a pretty significant store of gas, burning for more than 40 years.

Exactly. The story that has been circulating on the Internet is slightly different from what I was told by the local geologists. The common urban legend of the place is that it collapsed in 1971 and was set on fire by Soviet scientists shortly afterward. But I've heard from the local Turkmen geologists, who have been there for decades, that the collapse may have happened in the '60s and that it went unlit until the 1980s. It's hard for me to back that up, but this is basically straight from the horse's mouth ... I don't know exactly what happened. And there are no records. We tried to find any old incident reports or anything like that, and the department of geology just didn't have anything that dated back that far. Part of it still remains a mystery.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit "The Great Energy Challenge.

61 comments
Anvar Valeyev
Anvar Valeyev

"And I'm so far the only person who has actually done that." sorry to disappoint you, (it was indeed an act of a brave man) but you are not the only one, and not the first one to do that! I am local, and know a story when a man under the influence of alcohol has actually fallen into the pit! he managed to get out, with some burns but alive. If you were there you have probably noticed a metal rope hanging down on the left side (if looking at the last photo - Yes, most of photos are taken from same location - the "road")) that is where he got out!

Fred Schaff
Fred Schaff

Having been there in 2008 -- driving at night in the back of a Russian military truck where there is, basically, no road -- it quite a sight to see but the conventional wisdom then was that; while the "experts" were assessing how to harness the fuel, a worker lit a cigarette and flipped his still burning match into the "Pit"

Yolanda Cabrera
Yolanda Cabrera

This methane is wasting away and polluting the earth! Methane gas is a very useful commodity and should be saved.

William Rech
William Rech

Its an amazing site. we were there for 3 days just camping there are 2 other gas craters near by one is mud and the other is water all three are releasing gas really cool place.. Living there is even better 

jenny ross
jenny ross

 What? Burning for more than 40 years? Seriously man this is door to hell. I heard at Arzuw.tm a lot about Turkmenistan but this is first time I am reading about this.. Seriously I gotta go there & Hey Vladimir.... one more BBQ for me too :)

Ambrose Obidike
Ambrose Obidike

I'm a Geologist from Africa! this is a remarkable site to behold, this kind of expeditions is what fuels your quest for more discoveries!! Such vast amount of methane could do a whole lot more than just an side attraction. :)

Rick Magambo
Rick Magambo

This is great especially for Africa which is bedeviled with power shortages.Let the research in clean energy be intensified.

Scott Henrie
Scott Henrie

Was a crashed vehicle in the crater that could have set it on fire? Remnants of a meteorite? Sputnik? Maybe it was the program that runs the comment system on this page called "livefyre?"

Scott Henrie
Scott Henrie

Was a crashed vehicle in the crater that could have set it on fire? Remnants of a meteorite? Sputnik?

Arup Ghosh
Arup Ghosh

It was a tremandous work.  A great courage and energetic work,wounderfull photograph give a new vison of this work. 

Sandeep Singh
Sandeep Singh

Heads off to these guys and photographers to have such courage to find this type of places and experiment it and share to all the peoples of all nations.

Fong James
Fong James

A perfect place for BBQ, guys got us some beer!!

Josh Buckmaster
Josh Buckmaster

Why Isn't that place lined with factories?  Surely there is someone out there that needs a lot of virtually free energy.  The solar plant that uses mirrors to heat oil and then uses the oil to boil water for a turbine would be a good model to look at.

Jason Ding
Jason Ding

How does the bacteials survivaled?

Savas Ozyurt
Savas Ozyurt

Crazy idea man. Have you ever heard of a thing called "crane"? It's one of them things man has invented using something called technology.

Mark Romero
Mark Romero

If there ever exist a door to hell probably it'll be like this, amazing wish they could take more pics from the inside do, thank you National Geo you guys are the best!!!


Cora Saldo
Cora Saldo

It's nice we learn ....thank you

Martin Grossbaum
Martin Grossbaum

Why doesn't the whole pocket of gas just blow up, but instead it slowly fuels the fire for decades?

TC Osman Iris
TC Osman Iris

evet boyut ve koşullar  olarak cehennem hakkında fikir verebilecek bir şey

Noel Benedict
Noel Benedict

As a former caver I understand the need to descend into the crater

Mark Poteet
Mark Poteet

@Yolanda Cabrera how would you recommend putting out a fire with almost limitless fuel. To add another layer of complexity, you can't see the full fire, some of it is underground. As for pollution, cities like LA or Hong Kong pump out more pollution in an hour then this does in a month. 

Jaco Weideman
Jaco Weideman

@Martin Grossbaum Well, it's because fire (and an explosion) needs oxygen to burn. The gas pocket is under pressure, which means no oxygen can get inside it. And even if it did, the ratio of oxygen-to-methane would have to be correct for that kind of cataclysm to occur. Airplane fueltanks and even your cars' fueltank uses that same principle. ;)

Justin Ok
Justin Ok

@Mark Poteet @Yolanda Cabrera I think the point here was that whoever lit it shouldn't have lit it in the first place and should have harnessed it. Now that it's on fire, it's too late.


Mirthel Xristilla Ricafrente-Tampoy
Mirthel Xristilla Ricafrente-Tampoy

@dsfsdf asd @Alev Direk I respect your Religious beliefs but if people here wants a Religious sermon then we wouldn't have opened the site for National Geographic, isn't it? We are here because we are interested to learn/know about World/Scientific Facts. 

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