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VIIRS Captures a Glimpse of Hell

Posted On: September 17, 2012 - By: Curtis Seaman


VIIRS has seen Hell and, luckily, it did not get scared. No, I’m not talking about Hell, Michigan, which is actually a nice place (and not as scary as their website would indicate). I’m talking about the Gates of Hell (or Door to Hell, depending on who you talk to) in Turkmenistan. You can see a single video of it here and, if that isn’t enough to get a sense of it, someone compiled a list of 296 videos of the Gates of Hell near Derweze/Darvaza, Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan doesn’t have much – 80% of it is the Karakum Desert – but it does have a lot of oil and natural gas deposits. Back in 1971, the Soviet Union wanted to take advantage of these deposits, so they began drilling a gas well near the town of Derweze. Unfortunately, the drilling opened up a sinkhole that ate the drilling rig and caused the natural gas to leak out in large quantities. Oh, no! What to do now? Light it on fire!

The team of geologists thought that the best way to prevent the town from being suffocated by the toxic fumes was to ignite the gas, let it burn itself out in a few days, and return to see what the damage was. Guess what? That fire is still burning today – 41 years later!

This constantly burning crater is only 230 ft (70 m) across. So it may come as a surprise (to some people, at least) that VIIRS has no trouble seeing it. The highest-resolution channels on VIIRS have a spatial resolution of ~375 m at nadir. The fiery pit is so visible, the Day/Night Band (DNB), with ~740 m resolution, makes the Gates of Hell look like the biggest town in central Turkmenistan:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of Turkmenistan, taken 22:26 UTC 13 September 2012

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of Turkmenistan, taken 22:26 UTC 13 September 2012

The red arrow points out the light source that is the Gates of Hell. One other thing to note from this image is all the lights in the Caspian Sea. Those are oil rigs, with the largest light source (the one closest to the center of the Caspian Sea) being the floating/sinking city of Neft Daşları (a.k.a Oily Rocks), which sounds like a pretty interesting/sad/weird place to work.

In case you think the lights are coming from the town of Derweze and not the actual Gates of Hell, here’s a zoomed in image from the DNB along with the M-12 (3.7 µm) brightness temperatures:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of the Derweze "Gates of Hell", Turkmenistan, taken 22:26 UTC 13 September 2012

VIIRS Day/Night Band image of the Derweze "Gates of Hell", Turkmenistan, taken 22:26 UTC 13 September 2012

VIIRS channel I-04 image of the Derweze "Gates of Hell", Turkmenistan, taken 22:26 UTC 13 September 2012

VIIRS channel M-12 image of the Derweze "Gates of Hell", Turkmenistan, taken 22:26 UTC 13 September 2012. The color scale ranges from 210 K (white) to 300 K (black).

The Gates of Hell is the only light source that also shows up as a 345 K hot spot in channel M-12. Since this is a nighttime image, the signal in M-12 comes only from emission from the Earth (and clouds, etc.) without any contribution from solar reflection (as there would be during the day). What you see in the M-12 image is the temperature of the objects in the scene, just like a typical infrared (IR) satellite image, except with higher sensitivity to sub-pixel heat sources. The clouds show up as cold (bright, in this color table) above the warmer (darker) land surface. Sarygamysh Lake (and a few other smaller lakes) show up as really warm (dark) because the desert floor at night cools off much more than the water does.

The moon here was only ~10% full, so there wasn’t enough light reflecting off the few clouds in the scene for the DNB to detect them. In fact, with so little moonlight, everything is dark in the DNB. Everything, that is, except for the towns, villages and flaming craters of burning methane.


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