A New Perspective on Old Flames: Satellite Tracking of Emissions Reduction at the 60-Year Darvaza Fire Crater in Turkmenistan

The Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert has been aflame for nearly 60 years due to a drilling accident. Recently, state-run Turkmengas drilled a new “bypass” well to extinguish these flames. Independent satellite data now confirm a significant drop in emissions, highlighting the success of Turkmenistan’s efforts to reduce gas flaring, venting, and leaking.  This progress should inspire regional and global stakeholders to capture wasted gas, reduce emissions, enhance energy security, and accelerate the energy transition.

By Mark Davis, CEO of Capterio. Reading time 6 minutes.

This piece was also reported on by Aaron Clark at Bloomberg in a piece all “In the heart of a global methane hotspot, signs of progress” on 29th April.

The marvel of Darvaza

Deep in the vast expanse of Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert, a remarkable and fiery spectacle ignites the landscape, setting the horizon ablaze with its untamed flames.  Known officially as the “Lights of Karakum” (also, the “Darvaza Crater” or the “Gates of Hell”), this blazing pit lies 275 km north of the capital, Ashgabat.  Spanning 70 meters across, plunging 30 meters deep, with flames leaping 15 meters high, the crater marks a dramatic scar on the landscape visible from space.

The story of Darvaza begins in 1963 on the barren terrain near the Zeaghly-Derveze group of gas fields.  There, Soviet geologists exploring for hydrocarbons drilled into the “Chaldzhulba” structure and accidentally punctured a shallow gas-filled void in the cavernous limestone. The ground shuddered before swallowing most of the drilling rig (although some remains are still visible), creating a chasm that would soon become infamous.  The crater was later ignited to prevent the gas from polluting the air and creating a health hazard.  Given that methane is up to 83 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, this was also a shrewd and environmentally advantageous move.

Turkmenistan is littered with naturally occurring methane-spewing “mud volcanoes” (which in neighbouring Azerbaijan are 90%+ methane and 13C isotopically heavy – indicating a thermogenic origin from fossil sources – and estimated to release up to 1 million tonnes of methane per year[1]).  Several semi-natural drilling-related craters exist, but unlike nearby craters Derveze and Shyh-Shyhyany (whose flames quickly fizzled out after drilling), Darvaza’s rim roared relentlessly for over six decades.  Today, Darvaza burns like a portal to another world.  This geological wonder creates a spellbinding glow that captivates tourists and scientists alike and evokes visions of alien landscapes.  

The scientific expedition

Imagine the excitement when, in 2013, a famous dare-devil explorer, George Kourounis, mounted a scientific and adventure expedition to descend into the depths of the crater[2].  Equipped with a full-body aluminised suit[3] and 17 minutes of oxygen, George’s team inched him along a pre-strung flame-resistant rope above the inferno (which in places reaches temperatures well over 1000 Celsius), before lowering him to the crater floor.  “I felt like a baked potato in a convection oven, with huge down drafts of cooler air in the centre fuelling a crazily hot ring of fire at the edge”, said George. 

In service of science, George also collected samples from the crater, “but every time I dug into the earth to recover a sample, a new fire would break out”.  Dr Stefan Green, an expert microbiologist focused on extreme conditions[4],[5], was also part of the expedition.  Stefan went on to analyse the soil microbiome using a DNA sequencing technique and discovered genes from some unique methane-oxidising bacteria.  “It is likely that these organisms are able to survive in the areas where the convection currents bring cooler oxygenated air to the methane-rich soils”, opined Stefan.

Tracking Darvaza’s emissions

Yet, despite all the heat and light, the Darvaza crater has a darker side: emissions.  The Darvaza crater continuously emits potentially toxic gases, a stark health concern, especially for the 2,000 people living a few kilometres away.  Helpfully, the Darvaza crater is visible to Capterio’s FlareIntel tool, which tracks every gas flare for every asset, for every company, in every country on a daily basis.  Capterio’s proprietary algorithms detect flares from thermal anomalies on satellite data[6].  The FlareIntel technology platform not only helps companies and governments to get better visibility of flaring, but also helps them to improve their operational performance and identify attractive investment opportunities that monetise wasted gas.  Darvaza is a case in point.

Above: Chart from FlareIntel Pro showing the major geological basins, license blocks, oil and gas fields and gas flares in Turkmenistan and the broader region.

Using FlareIntel, we estimate Darvaza consistently burns around 2 million cubic feet per day (scf/d).  Assuming a low methane combustion efficiency of, say, 70% (although it is probably lower), we expect the actual flux of methane to be close to 3 million scf/d (2.3 tonnes of methane per hour, equivalently 160 mg of methane per square meter per second).  Over the last 60 years, we estimate it is likely to have released at least 30 million CO2-equivalent tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (more if the flare was unlit for a long period), equivalent to the annual emissions from at least 7 million US passenger vehicles. 

With a potential market value over this period of up to $300 million, capturing this gas is a significant commercial opportunity.  Indeed, Bayrammyrat Pirniyazov, the Director of Natural Gas Research at Turkmenistan’s NOC, said: “[the] burning crater has a negative impact on the environment.  In addition, natural gas is wasted, which can bring significant profit”.  If used for power generation, the gas could produce 20 MW of electricity (0.5% of Turkmenistan’s power consumption of 32 TWh[7]).  As the 4th largest flaring site in Turkmenistan in 2023 (noting that there are also many other unlit flares and vents), it is no wonder that President Serdar Berdimuhamedov has made Darvaza’s a strategically and politically important initiative and has instructed officials to deliver a solution.

Extinguishing underway

Over the decades, several imperatives have been set, and many potential interventions have been evaluated. In June 2022, Bayrammyrat Pirniyazovat from the Scientific Research Institute of Natural Gas of the State Concern, Turkmengas, announced a formal plan at an international scientific conference.

Last summer, a detailed project plan was drawn up led by Irina Luryeva[8], the head of the lab at the Scientific Research Institute.  After discovering that the original well casing was unretrievable, a new inclined “sidetrack” well has been drilled that penetrates the more porous sections of the complex geological formations to recover gas, successfully diverting some of the flow previously reaching the crater floor[9],[10].  The ultimate intention is to isolate the gas from the crater, stop the emissions, and put the gas to productive use.

Remarkably, the success of this new well intervention is visible from space.  Indeed, data from FlareIntel highlights an impressive reduction in flaring — by a factor of two — since August 2023.  This equates to an annualised decline rate of 70% per year (see Figure).  Which “creates a window of opportunity”, said Stefan Green, “as there is some pretty exciting microbial science that could be done before the crater is fully extinguished.

Above: The daily time series of flaring at the Darvaza crater, which has been burning for many decades. Flaring has, however, significantly reduced since September 2023 due to the interventions of Turkmengas.  As a result emissions are significantly reduced, whilst also potentially generating additional revenues, improving energy security, and accelerating the energy transition.

Broader impact and opportunities

Whilst the crater has not yet been fully extinguished, the independent data from Capterio demonstrate that the impact of Turkmengas’ interventions is already significant.  Not only have emissions (of CO2 and the more potent greenhouse gas, methane, CH4) reduced, but there is also potential for additional gas to be brought to market (domestically or via existing pipelines to Iran, China or Russia or, via proposed pipelines, to Europe or India), thereby improving energy security, supporting the Turkmen economy and accelerating the energy transition. 

Beyond the Daravaza crater there are many other opportunities to capture additional gas flares, vents and leaks in Turkmenistan  – potentially up to 8 billion cubic metres of gas per year.  Critically, Turkmenistan is already a signatory of the Global Methane Pledge and collaborates with many international partners[11] on methane and flaring reduction.  The actions at Darvaza are, therefore, an important and successful illustration of how solving gas flaring – and, more generally, methane venting and leaking – is a win for the country and a win for the planet. 

Above: photograph of George’s expedition camp in 2013.  Photo credit George Kourounis.


Acknowledgements

Capterio would like to thank Nazar Atajanov from the Turkmen Forum (which is hosting an event in Paris on 23-25 April at which the author is speaking), George Kourounis, a Canadian adventurer and television presenter, Stefan Green, an Associate Professor at Rush University, Chicago, and several others for inspiring conversations on this topic. 

Capterio is grateful for support from the UK Space Agency and partners.  Interested readers might be interested to read more about George’s expedition in 2013 and a video below.  Capterio is a British company specialising in solutions for gas flaring.  More information on Capterio’s client services and insights papers are available at www.flareintel.com.  For questions or comments on this article, please contact mark.davis@capterio.com.


[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259300302_Methane_emission_from_mud_volcanoes_in_eastern_Azerbaijan

[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/140716-door-to-hell-darvaza-crater-george-kourounis-expedition

[3] https://www.facebook.com/NatGeoTV/videos/die-trying-flying-over-fire/10154159435091005/

[4] http://extrememicrobiome.org/

[5] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.chas.2c00081

[6] https://flareintel.com/flareintel-pro

[7] https://www.energyinst.org/statistical-review

[8] https://m.akipress.com/news:716052:Project_to_extinguish_Darvaza_gas_crater_developed_in_Turkmenistan/

[9] https://orient.tm/en/post/71298/method-reducing-methane-emissions-derweze-crater-proposed-turkmen-scientists-has-received-practical-confirmation

[10] https://oilgas.gov.tm/en/posts/habarlar/4895/turkmenistanyn-alymlary-derweze-kraterini-goz-astyna-almagyn-usulyny-islap-duzduler

[11] https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-the-united-states-turkmenistan-annual-bilateral-consultations/