Earlier this week, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said the country will renew its efforts to close the Gateway to Hell, a massive natural gas fire that’s been burning since 1971 in the middle of the desert.
Extinguishing the fire — the result of an industrial mishap — is arguably a net good. But it would put a crimp in the tourism economy that has sprung up around the unnatural wonder. It’s rare to see the Earth belch fire, let alone due to reasons that are entirely due to human folly. That said, fixing the problem is absolutely the right thing to do.
But the Gateway to Hell is far from the only site of environmental calamity that has either become a tourist destination or occupied a special place in our collective conception of the world. Visiting these places is a somewhat fraught proposition. There’s something undeniable about wanting to see, say, Chernobyl for its time capsule-like qualities. But the meltdown that took place there also displaced hundreds of thousands and resulted in an unquantified number of deaths.
There are ways to visit these sites that honour the damage to people’s lives or the natural world. And, in fact, there’s good reason to do so. Bearing witness to the environmental calamities in our midst can help us understand how human error, negligence, or hubris (or sometimes a mix of all three and then some) caused them. In an era of climate change, the lessons from these places have only become more important. It’s only by learning from what brought ruin in the past that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes.
The Salton Sea
Inland seas are generally strange and wonderful places, saltwater where it’s not supposed to be. But the Salton Sea holds a special mystique because it was never meant to be. The valley the Salton Sea sits in has filled with water occasionally, but the current shimmering sea of saline water formed after a canal meant to divert water from the Colorado River (its own environmental folly, if we’re being honest) was breached by floodwaters in 1905.
The sea has been through a lot: it’s a failed resort mecca, an art and desert rat haven, a major stopover for migratory birds, a place where fish go to die, a source of toxic dust, and a dumping ground for irrigation and industrial runoff. Now, it could be the site of an American lithium boom.
Turkmenistan isn’t the only place with a massive fire burning underground. Centralia, Pennsylvania, was a thriving community that became a ghost town after the deposit of anthracite coal beneath it caught fire in 1962. The likely source of ignition was an attempt to clean up the town dump that spread to the veins of coal underneath.
The fire there is less dramatic than the Gateway to Hell in that it’s largely underground. But over the years, the landscape has taken an otherworldly quality as noxious smoke has emerged from cracks like volcanic fumaroles. With no way to put the fire out, some research indicates it could burn for centuries to come. Because of the risks of carbon monoxide along with the collapse of underground mining shafts, community members have trickled away and houses have been razed.
Chernobyl occupies a unique place in the cultural imagination, playing on fears of nuclear energy and the Cold War as well as nostalgia and fascination with the Soviet Union. So often, the past is knocked down or paved over. But the nuclear 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl meant that simply wasn’t an option given the risk of radioactive contamination. That means the site and surrounding town are still standing as a testament to the damage wrought by a series of human errors that led to the meltdown, a nuclear energy-created snow globe.
The site has become a huge tourist destination and the hubris that led to the meltdown have been immortalised in an HBO miniseries. Cleanup efforts have continued, including using robots to deal with the most radioactive parts of the reactor site. In a dark twist, climate change could also end up posing issues for the site; in 2020, wildfires spread in the exclusion zone. Though likely caused by arsonists (specifically, suspected fanatics of the 1972 Soviet sci-fi classic Roadside Picnic), the forests Chernobyl are under the same heat stress as others around the world.
The Aral Sea
Roughly 2,240 kilometres or so from Chernobyl sits a calamity in another part of the former Soviet Union. The Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest lake in the world. But an irrigation project started in the 1960s to turn arid parts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan into a breadbasket diverted the river that fed the lake. By 2014, the once-mighty lake was reduced to a mere sliver of water. Climate change-fuelled drought has furthered the Aral Sea’s transition into a shallow salt pan. (The far northern part of the lake basin is in comparatively decent shape following a dam project.) Yet the remains of the lake’s legacy can be found all around it, including a ship graveyard in Turkmenistan that now sits more than 150 kilometres from the lake’s current shoreline.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The oceans are, generally, a mess between acidification, overheating, and pollution. But the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is uniquely its own nightmare. Slowly rotating ocean gyres spanning thousands of miles have become magnets for human’s growing legacy of plastic, but the one in the North Pacific has achieved a degree of notoriety beyond its counterparts in other ocean basins. Spanning an area of nearly 1.6 million square kilometres, the patch of ocean contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash. Ghost fishing gear has ensnared marine life, sea turtles have choked themselves to death on plastic, and the islands that dot the region are awash in plastic with tragic results, as the photo above illustrates.
Efforts to clean the region up have garnered a degree of praise and concern, largely because while it’s very altruistic to scoop up plastic, it fails to address the underlying problem: More trash is piling up than we can remove.
Like Chernobyl, Fukushima has become a vessel for nuclear energy fears. A 2011 tsunami that led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Japan has since been struggling to figure out what to do with the radioactive waste at the site; some towns have offered to stash it away while the government has weighed dumping radioactive water into the ocean.
The exclusion zone has also become, like Chernobyl, a hot spot for animals rewilding the once-populated region. (Those animals have even been enlisted in monitoring radiation levels.) Some people are also returning and even partaking in activities like they used to, including surfing.
The Maldives Trash Island
The Maldives’ azure waters and remote atoll beaches are clearly its primary tourist draw. While holing up at a resort would certainly be a more relaxing option, there’s another site in the Maldives that speaks to the challenges of small island living and the heavy toll of the very tourists sitting at resorts. The artificial island of Thilafushi is essentially a giant, smouldering pile of trash that began to build in 1992. The island expanded outwards and upwards, even becoming a site for other industrial activities. Though dumping was temporarily halted in 2011, it was restarted and garbage — some of it toxic — continues to pile up.
Too often, tourism’s deleterious impacts on the environment — from cruises to plane travel — is all but invisible. Waste generated by resorts is also often conveniently swept under the rug. But Thilafushi — which can actually be seen from the air by flights landing in the Maldives — is one of those places that makes it impossible to ignore.
Lake Okeechobee is actually at the root of many of Florida’s environmental problems. Not that it’s the lake’s fault, of course, but rather how it’s been treated and used. Like the Aral Sea, Okeechobee is the site of a massive engineering project in the service of agriculture. The lake’s waters are essential to the sugarcane industry that sits to its south. To help regulate flows out of the lake, the Army Corps of Engineers erected a dike on the lake’s southern boundary and a series of canals shepherd bring water to the cane fields.
That’s had a deleterious effect on the lake, though. In 2018, Lake Okeechobee turned into a festering algae bloom due to a number of factors, including runoff from farms that was made worse, in part, by Hurricane Irama the preceding year. The Army Corps released some of that water, spreading the toxic algae all the way to the coast. Scientists are concerned for the lake future, in part because there’s such a thick layer of fertiliser lodged in its muddy bottom that it could unleash more toxic blooms in the years to come even absent more runoff. But with runoff not likely to stop anytime soon, Florida’s largest lake is just one hurricane or heavy rainstorm away from another algae bloom from hell.