In the middle of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, there is a pit. As holes in the ground go, it’s got the advantage of size, measuring 70 meters (230 ft) in diameter and 20 m (66 ft) in depth. In the past few decades, it has become a rather popular destination for international tourists craving adventures off the beaten track. Why, you might ask? Because, unlike the sandpit in my backyard, this isn’t just a regular hole. This pit breathes fire.
Allow me take you back to 1971. At this time, Turkmenistan is still part of the Soviet Union. Scientists scouting for natural gas have drilled a test well and hit a jackpot. But in the flurry of excitement that follows, they neglect to consider a crucial factor – the structural integrity of the ground surface. Rather unexpectedly, and much to their embarrassment, the ground below the rig caves in and their equipment collapses into the resulting sinkhole (don’t worry, nobody was injured). So now, where once they saw an opportunity, they are faced with nothing but a gaping hole – and a leaky one at that – which becomes known as the Darvasa gas crater.
Methane poses both an environmental hazard and a health risk. As a greenhouse gas, it is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. From a health perspective, it is dangerous in high concentrations as it is heavier than oxygen and therefore forms a cloud above the ground, potentially leading to suffocation. This is similar to what happened in the Lake Nyos disaster I covered earlier, where a large release of carbon dioxide from a volcanic lake proved devastating to nearby villages.
In an ideal world, we would be able to capture methane and convert it into energy. In practice, in remote locations, no appropriate infrastructure exists (eg. pipelines), and it is not economically feasible to construct it. Therefore, the standard operating procedure is to flare the methane, or more simply put, to set it on fire. Flaring is a widespread practice, often employed when gas is produced in association with oil but not enough economic motivation exists to harness it. In fact, flaring across the globe burns 140 to 150 billion cubic meters of gas per year, releasing 270 to 290 million tons of carbon dioxide (just under 1% of total global emissions).
But back to the story. The scientists naturally decided that the most prudent option was to set the pit on fire to minimize risks to the nearby village of Derweze. But with this decision came their second miscalculation – they failed to realize just how much methane they had unleashed. More than 4 decades later, the pit continues to burn with unwavering enthusiasm. As the raw natural gas burns, sulphur dioxide is produced in moderate concentrations as a byproduct, with a very sharp and distinctive odor. Since sulphur is colloquially known as brimstone, it is no wonder that the pit is generally known as the ‘Door to Hell’.
In 2010, the president of Turkmenistan ordered the pit closed, however no action has yet been pursued to this end. Thus it remains, a prime sightseeing location for anyone with an affinity for nasty smells, and a monument to the occasional ineptitude of science and engineering.
Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
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All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.