May 22, 2024

Brighton Journal

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He entered the “Gateway of Hell” in search of its secrets: “It was amazing and terrifying at the same time”

He entered the “Gateway of Hell” in search of its secrets: “It was amazing and terrifying at the same time”
Hell’s Gate, or Darvasa Crater, in the middle of the massive Karagam Desert in Turkmenistan (Courtesy: George Kouronis)

Hell’s Gate, from its marketing name, evokes fascination and fear in equal parts. In the enormous Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan, the tenth largest in the world, the Burning Pit breaks the monotony of the arid landscape with its relentless flames. For more than half a century, the non-stop burning well, technically known as the “Darwasa crater”, has worried officials, attracted the attention of onlookers and generated endless questions.

Recently published article Mark Davies, CEO of Capterio, a British company dedicated to reducing emissions, sheds some light on the crater’s origins and consequences. Until then, most hypotheses dated the appearance of the well to 1971, but Davies discovered – thanks to the contributions of local people – that it appeared eight years earlier, in 1963.

The Soviet Union knew that vast reserves of natural gas existed – and still exist – beneath the Karagam Desert. So, he sent geologists to drill the “Saltjulpa” formation in search of hydrocarbons. But the result was not what they expected: by mistake, they drilled a void, and the ground shook until a huge gas-filled sinkhole swallowed most of the drilling site.

Time after the accident The geologists decided to set the crater on fire because of the imminent danger What the gas means for the environment, air pollution and the health of nearby people. “Since methane is 83 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, this is a smart and environmentally friendly move,” Davis said in his article.

The link to that accident was what decades later became known as the Gate of Hell, a huge crater 69 meters in diameter, 30 meters deep and flames that heated up to 400 degrees Celsius. The well is drawn as a gateway to another dimension.

Even after more than 60 years, the fire is not extinguished. It was – and still is – a mystery. Despite its alluring beauty, it has an obvious environmental impact. It is estimated that the crater loses 55 thousand cubic meters of natural gas every day. Microorganisms were discovered deep there that could survive in conditions dangerous to humans within minutes.

Certain danger did not deter him George CroonisA famous and daring Canadian explorer conceived a journey in 2013 that no one has done and no one will do again: go deep into the Darwasa crater and enter the gates of hell for 17 minutes.

George Kourounis descends into the abyss in an aluminum astronaut-like suit (Courtesy: George Kouronis)

When he first heard about the ditch, he couldn’t get it out of his head. Its mysterious appearance, the fact that it was the only burning well on Earth, and that the flames had not given up over time created a fascination for him. Grunis had already made daring journeys, he had entered volcanoes, but he had never entered such a unique and unknown place.

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He spent one and a half years planning. in the Karagam desert, Gouraunis says in an interview Infobay, Amazon does not. Bring all the necessary elements for the adventure. First he got the permits and then planned the trip with his team. The objective beyond the cinematographic feat is scientific. Over the years I have wanted to collect rocks and soil samples to measure the impact of fire.

“I have a lot of experience inside active volcanoes, so that helped with preparations. My rope team and I did some training sessions to simulate what it would be like to move inside a crater through a river valley in Canada,” he said.

By a rope, George Gouronis descends into the burning gas pit of Tarvasa. (Courtesy: George Croonis)

The list of necessary materials includes a special aluminum heat protection suit, which at first glance looks like an astronaut. He also needed fire-resistant ropes, hazardous gas detectors, a self-contained breathing apparatus that would allow him to survive for more than a quarter of an hour without natural oxygen, and an infrared camera.

– One thing I didn’t consider is the type of connectors they use in Turkmenistan. I realized that the connector for the air tank I was going to use didn’t fit. It was very difficult for us to fill the air tanks. And wind is precisely one of the important ones!

There was one more thing. He had to brace his head to withstand the 15 meter high flames. To do this, he hired a Hollywood expert with experience in action films and stunts. “I told myself to set myself on fire several times to mentally prepare myself to enter the well. “I didn’t want to be scared when I was near the flames.”He noted.

A researcher kneels down to take soil samples at the bottom of a crater (Courtesy: George Krunis)

How would you describe the entrance to hell from the inside? What was the feeling when entering the pit?

– Standing at the bottom of the crater was amazing and terrifying at the same time. Flames everywhere. I wore cumbersome protective gear and a self-contained air mask so I felt like an astronaut on an alien planet. Despite the protective suit, I felt the heat on my body all the time, so I had to work quickly. I only had 17 minutes to collect soil samples from the bottom, take some measurements, and get out.

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– Did any setback or unexpected event occur during the 17 minutes of journey? Were you scared at any point?

-Everything went smoothly, yes, it was scary to step down from the edge of the chasm and put my weight on the rope. My team tightened the ropes in the crater and I hovered like a biplane and then descended into the crater. Once down, we had to collect samples, take temperature readings and do some filming with a thermal camera. I always described it as a coliseum of fire; Everywhere you look there are thousands of tiny flames. The only noise I heard was like a high pressure engine. And the fact that there was no smoke caught my attention. Everything burned very cleanly and allowed everything to be seen clearly, the flames and the stones. When I finally finished, my team picked me up and carried me out of Hell.

Stephen Green and other team members were able to zipline through the chasm at the end of the trip

Microbiologist Stephen Green It was part of the journey. He is the last to join, the scientific piece that completes the puzzle. Their goal was to determine whether special microbes lived inside the crater that differed from the desert surrounding the crater.

Although Green Hell’s Gate was not entered, he and other team members did a sort of zip line through the chasm at the end of the trip. For the rest, he was at the edge of the well and was able to observe as a special observer the accident that became the unique wonder of the world.

“The first approach to the crater is really intense. It’s huge and when we were there, there was no barrier around the perimeter, so it was a little scary if you didn’t like the height. The heat at the edges of the crater is also intense, much more than if you were hovering in the middle. The crater has a convective cycle and Warm air rises at its edges,” he recounted in the interview. Infobay.

Green only found out about the trip two weeks ago. He had to make suitable preparations against the clock. To meet scientific objectives, he brought sampling equipment to Karagam to collect sterile soil and George Krunis brought sterilized containers to take samples of the crater floor. In addition, he carried the necessary components to extract DNA from the samples.

A specimen was recovered from the bottom of Darwasa pit. (Courtesy: George Croonis)

The microbiologist intended to do his best in the region. His idea was to sort the samples before taking them back to America. “Ultimately, our goal was to use DNA sequencing to identify which bacteria were present in the ditch and surrounding soil,” he noted.

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In terms of microbiology, how special is the crater?

A crater is not really a microbiological situation. It was the result of an accident. However, there are bacteria that can “eat” methane and bacteria that can tolerate high temperatures and dry conditions. Therefore, we thought it would be worth investigating whether there are new microbes that can “eat” methane at high temperatures in the crater.

– What did the analysis of the samples show?

The results indicated that the crater contained thermophilic (i.e. heat-loving) and methanotrophic (i.e. methane-eating) bacteria that were absent from the surrounding soil. Years of fire have affected their microbiology.

– And what applications might those results have outside the trenches?

I am part of a research group dedicated to investigating how microbes can survive in extreme environmental conditions. This could have industrial applications, such as identifying enzymes that work to clean clothes in cold water, and even astronomical implications, such as pinpointing where else in the universe bacteria might live.

– Do you think the fire will be extinguished at some point?

– There seems to be good news this time. Geologists in Turkmenistan have succeeded in removing some of the methane fueling the crater. If they can eventually extract most of the methane from the crater source, they will be able to completely extinguish the fire. We’ll have to see if they achieve that in the future, but they’ve already taken a very promising step.

In recent years, the Hell’s Gate flames have begun to subside, and the fire has been able to be extinguished (Courtesy: George Krunis)

From September 2023, the flames began to decrease in intensity after decades of steady fire. The local government discovered that the original well was already under-recovery and chose to drill a new, more inclined one to isolate the gas from the crater, stop the emissions and exploit the hydrocarbon reserves.

The Darwasa crater is half as bright today as it was before. Experts believe that it will continue to darken and eventually, the fire will be completely extinguished. “I’d love to have the opportunity to go back and do a deeper science trip before it’s gone forever,” says George Gouronis. It seems that the gates of Hell will finally, for a moment, stop burning.