The Gateway to Hell, a large gas-burning valley in the middle of the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan.Picture: Igor Sasin / AFP (Getty Images)
Earlier this week, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said the country would resume its efforts. to close the Gate of Hell, the largest natural gas fire that has been burning since 1971 in the middle of the desert.
Firefighting – the result of an industrial accident – is undoubtedly the best. But it can put a damper on the tourism economy that has sprung up around unnatural wonders. It is necessary to see the Earth on fire, not to give up for reasons that are due to human folly. That said, fixing the problem is the right thing to do.
But the Gate of Hell is far from the only place of natural disaster that has become a tourist destination or a special place in all our worldviews. Visiting this place is a difficult idea. There is something indisputable about wanting to see, say, Chernobyl because of its time as a capsule. But the floodwaters also forced thousands of people to flee their homes, killing hundreds.
There are ways to visit these sites that honor the damage to human life or the environment. And, of course, there is good reason for doing so. Witnessing the natural disasters in our midst can help us to understand how human error, indifference, or distortion (or sometimes a combination of all three and then others) brought them. In the era of climate change, lessons from these areas have become increasingly important. It is only by learning from the destructive effects of the past that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes.