No matter the context, the concept of hell is pretty much ubiquitous: lots of fire, flames, heat and suffering. Ask someone where they think hell on earth is and they might lead you to a volcano. It fits the bill, right? Well, there’s actually a place so reminiscent of our depiction of hell, it’s actually known as the “Gates of Hell.”
The Darvaza gas crater is located deep within Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert. It’s nicknamed The Gates of Hell because it’s literally on fire and has been burning since 1971. It lives up to the name—whether you’re standing at the edge of the crater, taking drone video or even looking at it from a satellite. It’s a hole in ground, constantly erupting with flames that never seem to go out. Hell-inspiring, to say the least!
Who opened the Gates of Hell?
We know how long the Gates of Hell have been opened because they’re manmade—or, at least, the product of a manmade accident.
The reason the Darvaza crater continues to burn more than 50 years after opening is because it’s sitting atop one of the richest natural gas reservoirs in the world. Indeed, our attempt to mine that gas is what caused the fiery eruption in the first place. Drilling down for what they thought was oil, Soviet-era miners erupted into a natural gas pocket, which caused the drilling rig atop it to collapse inward. But this isn’t what started the fire.
In what was both an act of quick thinking and desperation, scientists actually lit the fire on purpose! The reason behind it is simple. Natural gas is primarily methane, and methane displaces oxygen. As the drilling rig collapsed and the Darvaza crater began to cave inward upon itself, it released a significant amount of methane. Fearing that the lack of oxygen would kill wildlife and nearby residents in the village of Derweze, scientists lit the gas to complete the chain reaction that would allow oxygen back into the space.
Why are they still burning?
Like they miscalculated the rigging operation that led to the crater’s collapse, scientists also underestimated the repository of natural gas they drilled into. Rather than burning off after a few weeks, the Gates of Hell have continued burning for more than 50! And they’re not likely to stop burning anytime soon.
Get up close and personal with hell
The Darvaza crater is nothing short of spectacle to behold—and if you’re brave enough, you can. While there are restrictions to those who can enter Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, once you’re in, you can walk right up to the edge of the crater and stare down into the mouth of hell. Many make the pilgrimage each year to do exactly that.
The crater itself measures 230 feet across and 65 feet deep, and is a popular camping place. During peak season, many people flock to the crater to camp around it, making it something of a huge bonfire for an authentic camping experience. At night, the crater burns beautifully in the desert stillness and it makes for an unforgettable sunrise landscape in the early morning.
While the Darvaza crater isn’t in any danger of exploding or erupting, take care to mind the edge if you do visit! Its size is due to the continued inward collapse of the crater as the natural gas pocket escaped. There’s no telling if it’ll continue to weaken as the fires burn off gasses trapped below the surface and from the surrounding areas.
Hell’s not so bad
Aside from the arduous trek to get there, a visit to the Gates of Hell isn’t as bad as one might expect it to be. The comparison is just an allusion, of course, and the crater itself offers stunning beauty amidst a history of destruction. It’s one of the true wonders of the modern age, worth the visit if you’re ever in Turkmenistan.
Looking for hell a little closer to home? Visit Centralia, Pennsylvania, to see a similar example of an underground fire that’s been continuously burning for more than 50 years. This one is caused by coal, the result of another mining accident. And while you can’t see the flames like you can at the Darvaza crater, the ghost town you’ll find when you get to Centralia will certainly make you feel like you’ve stumbled into a place out of this world—a place no person should linger in for too long.