The 'Gates of Hell' may finally be closed, Turkmenistan's president announces

The 'Gates of Hell' have been ablaze in the desert of Turkmenistan since 1971.
The 'Gates of Hell' have been ablaze in the desert of Turkmenistan since 1971. (Image credit: Getty images)

The leader of Turkmenistan would like to finally close the "Gates of Hell" that have burned continuously in the nation's Karakum desert for five decades, according to recent televised remarks.

In a Jan. 8 appearance on Turkmenistan's state TV channel, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov urged officials to "find a solution to extinguish the fire," citing concerns for the health of people living near the flaming crater, as well as lost business opportunities, Agence France-Presse (opens in new tab) (AFP) reported.

"We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people," Berdymukhamedov said, according to AFP.

What exactly are the Gates of Hell? Also known by the far-less-apocalyptic name of the Darvaza gas crater, the gates are a large hole in the desert measuring roughly 230 feet (70 meters) wide and at least 65 feet (20 meters) deep.

Excavation of the hole began in 1971 during a Soviet drilling operation to extract gas, according to AFP. (Turkmenistan is an ex-Soviet nation.) Disaster struck when the ground beneath the drill rig collapsed, and the rig plunged into a natural gas cavern. As noxious methane gas leaked into the air, geologists decided to set the crater on fire, estimating that the gas within would only burn for a few weeks.

Fifty years later, the Gates of Hell still blaze — and have even become one of Turkmenistan's top tourist destinations, according to AFP. The burning crater gained a boost in internet fame in 2019, when President Berdymukhamedov released a video (opens in new tab) of himself driving through the desert near the hole in a rally car, performing doughnuts.

Why Berdymukhamedov has soured on this flaming photo-op in the desert is unclear, though his economic concerns may be a clue. According to Vice.com (opens in new tab), Turkmenistan sits atop the fourth-largest known reserve of natural gas in the world, and the country's economy is largely dependent on gas exports.

President Berdymukhamedov previously ordered experts to quell the Gates of Hell in 2010, though those efforts were unsuccessful. Better luck this time.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.