Natural phenomena hold many portals to the underworld. We’ve already witnessed The Door to the Underworld courtesy of the Batagaika Crater in the Eastern Siberia tundra. Welcome now to the Gates of Hell, aflame for the last 40 years or so in the middle of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert. While there are various origin stories for this incredible sight, the Darvaza gas crater has been attracting tourists — and spiders — since the last part of the 20th century.
A Giant Sinkhole Burning in the Desert
The Darvaza gas crater is a giant pit in the ground, measuring around 230 feet (70 m) across and 99 feet (30 m) deep, as Atlas Obscura reports. The walls of the crater are alight, burning off methane escaping at high pressure from the surrounding dirt. At night, the pit glows with an eerie light out of the desert darkness.
Around the crater, the air is warmed by the crater’s gas burn. According to The Independent, the temperature inside the crater reaches 1,000 C (1,830 F), and the silence of desert life is blotted out by the slow roar of burning gas.
Drilling Rig Accidents and Other Tales
No one knows exactly what started the football-field-sized fiery crater or when it started to burn. Records from the area don’t exist, and most history is from hearsay. Rumor has it that in the old days of the Soviet Union, when Turkmenistan was one of the Soviet socialist republics, a team of geologists prospecting for fossil fuel made an error. Science Alert says that they miscalculated the strength of the ground, and their drilling rig crashed spectacularly through the surface. A giant gas pocket had weakened the overlying surface and couldn’t bear the rig’s weight.
Once this happened, the crater formed as the sinkhole swallowed the Soviet equipment. Along with the sinkhole and various other craters, the disturbance also released methane pockets as the surface fractured. Under high pressure and with an easier escape route, the gas rushed from the hole and into the surrounding desert. Because methane displaces oxygen, it quickly made the surrounding desert uninhabitable and killed off local wildlife.
It also posed quite a danger — Smithsonian Magazine notes that only around 5% concentration in the air is explosive. The authorities at the time made the decision to burn it off, expecting the flare to die down in a few weeks.
That was 1971, and the Darvaza gas crater has supposedly been burning ever since — although some locals will tell you that the crater was present a decade or two earlier, collapsing just like other natural phenomena, and has only been alight since the 1980s.
Tourists, Spiders and Scientists
Tourist interest is reportedly one of the main reasons why no one has extinguished the crater. It’s an amazing sight, and tour companies bring their guests to camp out in the desert to experience the Darvaza gas crater at night. As the crater glows orange into the darkened sky, the warmth from the raging fires keeps campers warm despite the freezing night air.
Spiders and moths are also attracted. Science Alert reports that spiders are lured in by the warmth, with thousands of them falling into the fiery pit. And moths are attracted by the glow, which brings flocks of birds hunting them, according to Insider.
But no one has survived in the depths apart from scientist and explorer George Kourounis, who descended to collect soil samples from the crater floor.
Alien Landscape on Earth
In order to survive inside the burning crater, Kourounis equipped himself with heat-reflective protective gear and carried his own air supply, he told National Geographic. Convection currents that circulate in the crater due to the extreme heat suck the breathable air from the bottom of the crater; falling in would result in swift asphyxiation followed by a slow roast in the heat. Kourounis used heat-resistant ropes and had a climbing harness made from Kevlar for the journey.
He also spent time with a Hollywood stunt coordinator being set on fire to prepare himself for being among the flames. This might sound extreme — until you see drone footage captured during a separate visit by photographer Alessandro Belgiojoso, featured in The Independent, which shows the walls flickering fervently with flames as the methane burns.
The National Geographic report details Kourounis’s expedition, with the explorer describing being inside the Darvaza gas crater as being in a “coliseum of fire.” The noise from the burning gas blocked off all sound from the exterior, and Kourounis briefly passed out from heat on the way back to the crater rim.
He did manage to collect soil samples during his brief walkabout on the crater floor. These showed that bacteria capable of thriving in extreme conditions, similar to extremophiles seen in the Yellowstone hot vents, existed in the crater. When asked about his experience and why he wanted to knock on hell’s gates, Kourounis explained that visiting alien landscapes like these on Earth can help research on similar off-world environments.