Friday, August 1, 2014
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Rock doc: The door to hell lies in Turkmenistan

By
January 30, 2014 |

I’ve written here before about the problem of unwanted fires burning in coal deposits. Above and below ground, coal fires are a problem in both developed and developing nations. If we are serious about reducing our carbon dioxide emissions, we should address the unwanted fires burning around the world.
Unwanted coal fires are not a huge slice of the carbon dioxide pie, but putting them out is one way we could decrease the emission of greenhouse gases without putting a damper on economic growth. And if we addressed coal fires where they can be extinguished, we could help clean up local air quality, as well.
I’ve seen photos from India of blazes with flames reaching more than 20 feet into the sky. China also has many fires burning in its coalfields. But the problem isn’t just limited to the developing world. Here in the U.S. we have coal fires burning in places as varied as Pennsylvania and Wyoming.
Now I’ve learned that unwanted natural gas fires can also be a long-term problem. Sometimes gas fires burn themselves out quickly, but in at least one place in the world that hasn’t been the case at all. The story merited a place recently in England’s Daily Mail.
The Karakum Desert lies in central Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan, you might recall, is in central Asia, just east of the Caspian Sea. There’s a great deal of natural gas in Turkmenistan — the Karakum Desert has one of the larger natural gas reserves to be found anywhere.
In 1971 Soviet geologists and engineers were exploring in the Karakum Desert for oil and natural gas. Part of the exploration effort, of course, was setting up drilling rigs and penetrating the ground. Quite unexpectedly, the earth underneath one drilling rig collapsed, creating a crater.
The guys at work in the area realized there was methane — natural gas — in the new crater. That flammable gas was a hazard for the workers and nearby villagers as well. Putting their heads together, the people on the scene decided to ignite the natural gas in the crater. They thought it would be a good way to eliminate the hazard, trusting that the fire would burn out in a short time.
But the fire in the crater has burned continually since that day in 1971. Enough gas vapor flows naturally into the crater that the flame burns endlessly onward. The crater — with its flames and boiling mud — is called the Door to Hell by those who live nearby. The crater appears to be growing over time, and it has become something of a tourist attraction.
Beyond making for intriguing photos, coal and natural gas burning out of control does us no good. As I’ve argued before, we can and should do more to put out unwanted fires of earth materials. In so doing we would help local, often impoverished, residents affected by fires — and even help the whole world in terms of cutting our greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.  

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