This week I decided to write on a very different topic which is about a  human created crater which has been burning for more than four decades in the deserts of Turkmenistan. Why this topic and what can be learnt from it depends on how you perceive the story.  


A new tourist destination arises in the deserts of Turkmenistan, not so surprisingly for a legendary seeming wonder, some of the details regarding the "Door to Hell," otherwise known as the Darvaza Gas Crater, have passed into legend since its creation by the ex-soviet scientists. Sources vary regarding the timeline, but Gadling sets the beginning of the story at about 35 years ago, which seems the most likely when considering some say it's been burning for over 200 years.

Let me give you a short outline to this week's blog and I have chosen a very different topic which can be also taken as a case study by organizations.


In the late sixties, when Turkmenistan was part of the USSR, Soviet geologists were sent into the desert to explore for natural gas, while drilling in one such spot, the geologists happened upon a large, cavernous space full of poisonous gas which promptly swallowed their equipment. Hoping to burn off the excess gas, perhaps to make it possible to descend into the crater, the geologists set it ablaze and four decades later, it's still burning and now has turned into a tourist destination.


Long way down: The hole was formed in 1971 when the ground beneath a drilling rig collapsed


Being an Innovation and product management student I digged a bit deeper since these kind of scientific lapses can cause a company fortunes. For the beginning lets look into the history of the country.


History and Geography


Turkmenistan is seventy percent desert – the Karakum Desert, to be exact. The nation is divided into five provinces, the second largest being the Ahal Welayat which occupies the south-central portion of the country. Ahal is almost entirely desert and contains just fourteen percent of the country’s population, but it is also rich in natural resource deposits.


When Soviet scientists discovered a cache of oil reserves near the town of Derweze in the Karakum Desert, drilling quickly commenced, with very few precautions. When a drilling rig collapsed and created a crater, large amounts of methane gas was released. When the oilmen attempted to burn off the methane, it started a fire that still burns over forty years later, what we see is that a single wrong decision can cause a fortune for the next generations and can even damage the nature.

The village of Derweze (also known as Darvaza) is centrally located in Turkmenistan, its 350 tribal residents braving the inhospitable conditions of the desert for hundreds of years, this kind of an incident has interrupted the peaceful and quiet lifestyle of the nomadic tribe, aside from sitting on a valuable cache of natural resources.


Exploration and the Disaster


In the late sixties the Soviet Union sent exploration teams across the continent to locate deposits of gas and oil. By 1971 one of the groups had located what was believed to be a rich deposit underneath the village of Derweze. A camp was established, a drilling rig quickly set up, and operations began shortly thereafter.


As the drilling started, the petrochemical scientists started estimating the quantity of gas reserves available at the site. Initial estimates were positive, and when the Soviet drilling rigs confirmed their findings, production was increased to full capacity and they began storing the gas.


Unfortunately, the ground collapsed under the weight and pressure of the drilling rigs set up at the site, leaving a large hole with a diameter of 70 meters (230 ft), miraculously no lives were lost in the disaster, but large quantities of methane gases were released into the atmosphere.


This created a significant environmental concern while threatening the health of the Derweze villagers. When methane (a dangerous greenhouse gas) is burned, it is a greater contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide.

The geologists determined the best course of action was to set the crater on fire. Burning off the excess methane over several days would be far cheaper and safer than using expensive equipment for extraction, which could be dangerous and take months.

This was supposed to practical considering the large size of the crater, containing the gaseous outbreak would be very expensive, which is why the scientists opted for an easier, more cost-effective, and what they presumed would be a quicker solution. 

Unfortunately, initial estimations of the site’s reserves were extremely low; when the scientists lit the gas, it erupted and didn’t stop burning. Over forty years later, the fire still burns. Locals quickly dubbed the site the Door to Hell and the Gas Crater of Darvaza.

Over growing concerns, the President of Turkmenistan ordered the village of Derweze to disband in 2004 – but not for safety reasons. Leader Saparmurat Niyazov claimed the village was an unpleasant sight for tourists to the crater.

In April of 2010 Turkmenistan leader Berdimuhamedow visited the Door to Hell and ordered it to be closed. The exposed burning crater hinders additional drilling in the area rich in natural resources. With the crater closed, Turkmenistan could resume drilling and provide more revenue. But by Oct of 2013 no action has been taken and the Darvaza gas crater fire still burns.

Today

Since the disaster in 1971 there has been little exploration in the Karakum Desert. Turkmenistan has concentrated its effort in the Caspian Sea at Dauletabad-Donmez by the Iranian border and along the Amu-Darya Basin bordering Uzbekistan.

Over the past several years exploration in the desert has increased, both at the large South Yolotan/Osman gas fields and at Gutlyayak.

Turkmenistan has the fourth-largest reserve of natural gas in the world, and currently produces 75 billion cubic meters each year. Despite such riches of natural gas, the country has struggled to fund a cleanup operation.

To the country’s credit, leadership has announced a desire to clean up the site and close the Door to Hell. But until the country is given financial assistance or pressured politically, it appears unlikely the Door will be closed any time soon.


Learning’s


The learnings  from this kind of a scientific lapse or a disaster is very simple but the crux lies in the proper implementation of the processes and how we handle such situations. A few main learnings I find are: 
  • Sometimes we need to make decisions which are more strategic and not for a short term.
  • In case of such a tragedy in a business environment the company or the organization, in this case the government should handle it as soon as possible instead of delaying the whole process.
  • The importance to do the homework before entering a project is really important.
  • In order to use resources sustainably we need to look at these kind of wastages seriously which affects not only the people of the area but the whole world in large, by the continuous emission of the greenhouse gases.
  • Sometimes the lack of will power by the authorities can be a reason to lack of implementation, so the role of leaders in the organization is really important.
  • In case the problem cannot be solved we need to find contingency creative solutions for example in this case they could have built an electric power station may be the heat produced by the burning methane could run the steam turbines.
  • We can also look at this in a different perspective and say that the site could be promoted as a tourist attractions spot and there could be various businesses set up in the area. 

I would end with a note saying businesses can learn from such case studies about vulnerability assessment, emergency preparedness, and response to disasters – be they natural or man-made, accidental, or deliberate, and vice versa. Finally a video showing the burning crater.