— The Erimtan Angle —

Vlogbrother Hank Green talks about a crater in Turkmenistan that has been on fire for decades and has earned itself the title of: The Door to Hell.

Giving a bit more detail as well as some context, historian Kallie Szczepanski tells us that in “1971, Soviet geologists punched through the crust of the Karakum Desert about seven kilometers (four miles) outside of the little village of Derweze, Turkmenistan, population 350. They were searching for natural gas, and did they ever find it. The drilling rig hit a large natural cavern filled with gas, which promptly collapsed, taking down the rig and possibly some of the geologists as well, though those records remain sealed. A crater approximately 70 meters (230 feet) wide and 20 meters (65.5 feet) deep formed, and began spewing methane into the atmosphere. Even in that era, before concerns about methane’s role in climate change and its potency as a greenhouse gas had hit world consciousness, it seemed like a bad idea to have poisonous gas leaking from the ground in huge quantities near a village. The Soviet scientists decided that their best option was to burn off the gas by lighting the crater on fire. They accomplished that task by tossing a grenade into the hole, anticipating that the fuel would run out within the week. That was more than four decades ago, and the crater is still burning. Its glow is visible from Derweze each night. Fittingly, the name Derweze means “gate” in the Turkmen language, so locals have dubbed the burning crater the “Gate to Hell.” Although it is a slow-burning ecological disaster, the crater has also become one of Turkmenistan’s few tourist attractions, drawing adventurous souls out into the Karakum, where summer temperatures can hit 50ºC (122ºF) without any help from the Derweze fire. Despite the Derweze Door to Hell’s potential as a tourist site, Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov issued orders for local officials to find a way to put out the fire, after his 2010 visit to the crater. The president expressed fears that the fire would draw off gas from other nearby drilling sites, damaging Turkmenistan’s vital energy exports. The country exports natural gas to Europe, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. Turkmenistan produced 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2010; its Ministry of Oil, Gas, and Mineral Resources published a goal of reaching 8.1 trillion cubic feet by 2030. Impressive though it looks, the Gates of Hell at Derweze seems unlikely to make much of a dent in those sorts of numbers”.[1]

The Turkmen crater reminds me of the other never-ending fire that has been burning underneath Pennsylvania in the vicinity of the small town of Centralia since 1962. Here is a short clip made by The Unknown Cameraman.

Writing in the Washington Post ten years ago, Tyler Currie declares that Centralia “is a very small town. No, that’s not right. Centralia used to be a very small town. Today, just a handful of resolute diehards keep Centralia from becoming a total ghost town. There are no more businesses here. The charred remains of Centralia’s last operating store, a motorcycle shop called Speed Spot, sit at the deserted center of town. The last church was demolished years ago, but its cemetery is still well groomed. There are no schools. Last year, the U.S. Postal Service said it was eliminating Centralia’s Zip code. And year by year, its people are disappearing too. Just 20 are left now, down from more than a thousand two decades ago. In this part of Pennsylvania, a mine town gone bust is hardly news. But there is none whose demise has been so spectacular and observable. Centralia has been on fire, literally, for the past four decades. The Centralia mine fire began in 1962 when a pile of burning trash ignited an exposed seam of coal. The fire soon seeped down into the lattice of old mine tunnels beneath town. When it was founded in 1866, Centralia’s ocean of underground coal, aptly named the Mammoth Vein, meant limitless wealth. But once the fire began, it came to mean endless destruction. This abandoned section of Route 61 runs smack through one of Centralia’s so-called hot zones. In these areas the underground fire directly affects the surface landscape. The traffic that used to flow over this section of road has been permanently detoured several hundred yards to the east. Thanks to a recent snowfall, the tracks of other visitors are obvious — that is until the snow cover abruptly ends. It’s as if someone has drawn a line across the road. On one side there’s snow. On the opposite side there’s bone-dry asphalt. The road’s surface is not exactly warm. But the asphalt is definitely not as cold as it should be on a chilly day in the Appalachian Mountains. In the roadside woods, all the trees are dead, baked to death by the subterranean smolder. Even their bark has peeled away . . . While the mine fire began in the spring of 1962, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Centralians began to quit their town in droves. According to [remaining resident, John] Lokitis, the catalyst for this exodus came on Valentine’s Day 1981, when a patch of ground collapsed beneath the feet of a 12-year-old boy named Todd Domboski. The exposed subsidence was hot, deep and spewing carbon monoxide. Todd was lucky. He grabbed a tree root, and a cousin helped pull him up to safety”.[2]


[1] Kallie Szczepanski, “The Gates of Hell | Derweze Turkmenistan” About.com (s.d.). http://asianhistory.about.com/od/asianenvironmentalhistory/ss/Gates-of-Hell-Derweze-Turkmenistan.htm.

[2] Tyler Currie, “Zip Code 00000” Washington Post (02 April 2003). http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2003/04/02/AR2005033108150.html.

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