Located in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, the Darvaza Crater is a massive human-made sinkhole leaking burning methane gas for decades. It has been said it was intentionally set alight by Soviet authorities, hoping it would burn off in few weeks. But no one knows for sure.
In 2013, explorer George Kourounis set out on an expedition to study the crater’s dynamics for National Geographic. However, background information was hard to find. “If you go the internet and do kind o research, you’ll hear that the crater formed in 1971 and was lit almost immediately by Soviet geologist, “ says George.
George met with two local Turkmen geologists who told a different story. They say that the crater was formed in the late 1960s. And was gurgling with gas and mud for quite a few years and wasn’t actually ignited until the 1980s.
Gas, oil, and natural resources during soviet times were considered strategic and top secret. And it’s also a reflection of how they worked in Soviet times.
Historian Dr. Jeromin Perovic: „It seems that really nobody was interested in making this a big deal. Because at that time, you had report successes, not failures. So if people on the ground – the locals – they did something wrong, nobody was interested in that being reported.”
One theory is that the Soviets used a flaring technique, a common practice in natural gas extraction, in which excess gas intentionally burned for safety and financial reasons.
By the end of the 80s, the Sovie Union produced 700 billion cubic meters of gas per year. When they were flaring 15 – 16 billion cubic meters of gas per year, this is four times the gas that Switzerland uses every year, but it’s nothing for them.
“So, rather than giving this a lot of thought, and trying to use it more rationally or putting gas to the pipeline, which requires the building of infrastructure, they would burn it. Unfortunately, this problém has not been solved until today,” says Petrovic.
Leaking Gas Risks
Having an uncontrolled release of methane is incredibly dangerous. If they’re constantly burning it off, then it’s not accumulating into a particular area. Otherwise, every once in a while, it would have just created a huge explosion. From an environmental perspective, it’s an uncontrolled release of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Turkmen authorities had discussed extinguishing the crater. However, they changed their minds and now use it to promote tourism. While Turkmenistan only sees 6,000 tourists per year, the crater’s murky history and mesmerizing glow keep it a draw for adventures.