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SYFY WIRE geology

The gates of hell are closing, at least in one place on Earth

There is a reason the Darvaza gas crater in Turkmenistan is called the “Gates of Hell”.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Darvaza Gas Crater GETTY

One does not simply go to Mordor, or a place on Earth that could easily pass for what J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind when he envisioned that fiery chasm in Mount Doom.

There is a reason the Darvaza gas crater in Turkmenistan is called the “Gates of Hell.” It is an actual mouth of flames that is said (depending on who you ask) to have roared to life in 1971 when a Soviet drilling expedition in the Karkum Desert went wrong and the ground collapsed, unleashing the methane-fueled fires of a natural gas cavern. Now President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has once again — more officially this time — demanded that it be closed.

Entering a portal to the inferno may sound impossible for any human being, except for maybe Angry Planet host George Kourounis. Even after venturing into the depths of more volcanoes than anyone could even imagine standing remotely close to, he had still never seen anything like the fire pit that has turned into an unlikely tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the methane it belches is detrimental to both the surrounding environment and public health, so Kourounis is somewhat torn.

“I’ve got a personal relationship with the crater, but I understand why they want to do it,” he told SYFY WIRE. “It’s an industrial accident that is a bit of an eyesore, but it was bigger, hotter, deeper, and much scarier than I had ever expected, and my plan was to go down to the bottom for samples.

No one has been inside this real-life Mount Doom since Kourounis, and no one dared go after. When Berdymukhamedov previously announced that he had plans to close the Darvaza crater in 2010, it sparked the career adventurer and storm chaser to take the plunge before it was too late. He had been previously studying whatever information on the crater he could possibly find.  Not much existed, online or otherwise. When he reached Turkmenistan, geologists told Kourounis it had burst open in the 1960s but didn’t actually start burning until the 1980s.

There is some evidence backing up the later theory, but with documents either lost or stashed in an old Soviet vault somewhere as classified material, no one may ever really know what happened. What Kourounis does know is that the experience is unreal. Wearing an aluminum suit that looked like a mashup of a hazmat suit and an astronaut suit, he was lowered down to photograph the crater and collect samples with only 17 minutes’ worth of oxygen. Scorching winds swept across the edge as guttural roars issued from deep within the beast.

“I totally understand why people call it the ‘Gateway to Hell’ because it really does look like you’d expect he devil himself to come out of that,” he said. “You get roasted by the wind. It roars like a jet engine, and the heat is unbelievable. It was like setting foot on another planet.”

There are some places on Earth which are the closest you can get to an alien world without ever actually leaving, and along with the abyssal depths of the ocean and other remote, extreme locales, this is one of them. Kourounis compared it to living in a science fiction movie where everything was glowing orange. The samples he brought to the surface were found to be crawling with microbes, methanogenic archaea that thrived inside the hellfire, and though there weren’t many, they were there. This could influence how we search exoplanets for signs of life.

“We don’t know how they got inside the crater and why, because they live in the surrounding sand dunes,” Kourounis said. “They were found to be new life that was not in the existing DNA database but similar to the bacteria around black smokers at the bottom of the ocean.”

For now, no one knows exactly when the flames will be extinguished because there is no actual deadline. But Kourounis would return to the gaping infernal maw if he could.

“I’d hate to see this place extinguished,” he said. “It’s beautiful as it is frightening.”