The “Sinkhole to Hell”


In Central Asia, bordered on the north by Uzbekistan, the southeast by Afghanistan, the southwest by Iran and the east by the Caspian Sea, lies the country of Turkmenistan. With the world’s fourth largest proven reserves of natural gas, Turkmenistan is the world’s 11th largest exporter of this valuable resource.

A dangerous substance, if not properly managed, rather than becoming a useful energy source and revenue stream for a developing country, natural gas can turn a field into a blazing inferno. And that is precisely what happened in 1971.

Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan had been one of the union’s “constituent republics,” (then called Turkmen). In 1971, Soviet engineers identified a site near the village of Derweze, in the Karakum Desert (about 160 miles north of the capital city of Ashgabat), as a potential natural gas field. Drilling had commenced at the site, and the engineers had even begun storing gas, when suddenly the ground gave way, the rig collapsed into a large crater, and then disappeared.

No one was hurt, but the engineers feared the pit would release poisonous gases into the air. So, the team decided to burn it off – thinking it would burn itself out within a few days…

The 60-meter wide, 20-meter deep hole continues to burn today, closing in on half a century later.

With natural gas such a valuable resource, in 2010, the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, ordered that the hole be sealed, with the idea of developing other reserves in the area. To date, however, this has proven unsuccessful.

Eerily beautiful, if reminiscent of what many seem to think resembles their idea of the “gate to hell,” some Turkmen pragmatists are promoting the burning crater to eco-tourists, one of whom described the experience as “taking your breath away . . . . You immediately think of your sins and feel like praying.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • In 2012, Turkmenistan produced 2,616,235 TJ (terrajoules) worth of natural gas. In terms of electricity, this equates to 2.9 billion kWh (kilowatt hours).
  • A Calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.  One Calorie is also approximately 4.184 kilojoules or about 1.16 watt/hours or equivalent to one gram of TNT in terms of energy.  (It is important to note that the capital “C” in calorie signifies a kilo-calorie, also known as a “food calorie” because the values listed on food labels are typically in kilo-calories.)
  • Amazingly, if we were able to convert matter perfectly to energy with 1 kg of matter being completely annihilated, the energy produced from just that small amount of matter is about 42.95 mega tons of TNT.  So an adult male weighing in at around 200 pounds has somewhere in the vicinity of 4000 megatons of TNT potential in their matter if completely annihilated. This is about 80 times more energy than was produced by the largest ever detonated nuclear bomb, the Tzar Bomba, which itself produced a blast about 1,400 times more powerful than the combined explosions of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • To further illustrate, 1 megaton of TNT, when converted to kilowatt hours, makes enough electricity to power an average American home for about 100,000 years.  It is also enough to power the entire United States for a little over 3 days.  So 1 kg of some matter being completely annihilated would be able to power the entire United States for about four months.  One average adult male then, when completely annihilated, would produce enough energy to power the U.S. for about 30 years.  Energy crisis solved. 😉 On a completely baffling scale, a typical supernova explosion will give off about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 megatons of TNT. *cowers in the corner*
  • The energy required to stop the Earth dead in its tracks from orbiting the Sun is about 2.6478 × 10^33 joules or 7.3551 × 10^29 watt hours or 6.3285*10^17 megatons of TNT.  For reference, as mentioned, the largest nuclear explosion ever detonated (the Tsar Bomba by the Soviet Union) “only” produced 50 megatons of TNT worth of energy.  So it would take about 12,657,000,000,000,000 of those nuclear bombs detonated at the correct location to stop the Earth completely from orbiting the Sun.
  • According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. residential utility customer uses 10,837 kWh of electricity each year, and together with all sources, according to the CIA Fact Book, the United States consumed an estimate 3.886 trillion kWh in 2010. This was in addition to U.S. consumption of refined petroleum products, which, in 2011, was an estimated 18.84 million barrels each day. That’s almost twice the rate of consumption in China, a country that has four times the population.
  • The United States also consumed a total of 689,900,000,000 cubic meters of natural gas in 2011, four times the amount of China.
  • On the other hand, between 2002 and 2012, the U.S. produced 536.9 TWh (terawatt hours) (or 536,900,000,000 kWh) of energy from renewable sources, including 298.1 TWh from hydraulic sources and 140.9 TWh from wind. Solar production was relatively small with only 15.0 TWh during the period.
  • Notably, Iceland produced all of its electricity during the period (17.5 TWh) from hydraulic (12.3 TWh) and geothermal (5.2 TWh) sources. Ethiopia was a close second, producing most of its electricity (6.9 of 7.0TWh) from hydraulic sources, and Norway a close third, producing over 98% of its electricity from hydraulic, wind, biomass and solar sources.
  • Among the 89 countries examined by the worldwide inventory of renewably-sourced electricity production, the United States fell far short of the Top 21, membership of which was reserved for those who produced at least 50% of their electricity from renewable sources. The U.S. produced just over 19% at present.
  • In November 2013, George Kourounis made it to the bottom of the burning crater in Turkmenistan, where he collected samples, and then made it back up to live to tell the tale.
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