Over 40 years of unintentional flames in the Karakum Desert
Be careful when looking for fossil fuels in the desert— you just might find it. Such was the fate of Soviet geologists in 1971, when they were exploring the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan. Expecting oil fields under the dry earth, their equipment instead burst through into a pocket of natural gas, which then collapsed, taking their equipment with it. This wasn’t the real problem though.
While people do drill for natural gas to use as a fuel, it requires its own set of equipment to actually capture and collect. Even if the oil well the geologists set up hadn’t collapsed into the ground, they still wouldn’t have had the tools necessary to begin collecting the gas. Instead, the gas began dispersing around the area, and the methane started displacing enough oxygen in the local atmosphere to cause animals to effectively suffocate.
Fighting methane with fire
To try to head off this growing fiasco, it was decided to use a technique called “flaring” to get control of the natural gas. Ideally, flaring is set up alongside gas collection equipment, and can then burn off excess methane in a controlled manner, avoiding dangerous build-ups. It’s so commonly used that it makes a measurable impact on air quality, since in a single year this technique can consume as much as 25% of the annual natural gas consumption of the United States.
The gas that just keeps on giving
The Soviet geologists didn’t have that many choices though. They ignited the 65-foot-deep crater, hoping it would burn itself out in a few weeks. Instead, the crater has been burning continuously ever since. In the last 40+ years, what has been named the Darvaza gas crater has become an attraction for tourists and occasional misguided insects. There has been talk about filling the crater and extinguishing the flames, but nothing has otherwise indicated that the fires will be out any time soon.
Source: This Hellish Desert Pit Has Been On Fire for More Than 40 Years by Natasha Geiling, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/giant-hole-ground-has-been-fire-more-40-years-180951247/