Turkmenistan may extinguish the “Gates of Hell,” a 50-year fire ignited in a collapsed gas-drilling well.

In 1971, an oil survey discovered a natural gas pocket in the middle of the Karakum Desert, near the village of Darvaza in Turkmenistan. Part of the Soviet Union at the time, the Karakum was suspected to be a large and profitable oil field site. But soon after the survey, the ground beneath the drilling rig and camp collapsed into a sinkhole nearly 70 meters wide.

There were no casualties, but engineers raised the alarm that the collapse would be releasing methane gas in quantities dangerous to nearby towns. So they advised lighting the gas. Their estimation was that it would burn off within a few weeks.

Let me restate: That all happened in 1971. 50 years later, the fire they lit is still burning. The sinkhole is a bowl of orange flame and boiling mud over 70 meters wide and 20 feet deep. Officially called the Darvaza gas crater or Garagum ýalkymy (The Shining of the Karakum in Turkmen), it’s better known worldwide as The Door to Hell or Gates of Hell.

Though Turkmenistan is a hard country to travel to, people still make the trek. Tourists to the crater camp in the wild desert around it. Oil drilling has continued in the area, but officials worry about the crater igniting other sites. And studies have shown that having a massive methane fire burning unimpeded for 50 years is, amazingly, not healthy for those living around it or their environment.

To that end, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, President of Turkmenistan, has charged his administration to look for a way to extinguish the massive fire. Reported on Saturday, a commission has been put together to study the matter. They are either to put the fire out, or find mitigation measures for its negative impacts.

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