In the remote Siberian town of Mirny, there lies a gaping crater in the Earth’s crust. The hole drops to an astonishing 1,722 feet below ground, in fact, making it one of the largest made-made cavities on the planet. But ever since the Mir diamond mine was excavated back in the 1950s, strange rumors have swirled. And at least one of the conspiracy theories surrounding the site is rather disturbing…
Our planet is full of all kinds of curiosities, and the huge holes that dot the Earth are certainly among them. Indeed, there’s something fascinating about large chasms – whether they have been dug by humans or simply occur naturally – not least because they often provide us with windows into subterranean worlds. Many of these pits are beautiful to look at, too.
Take, for example, the Great Blue Hole, which can stake a claim to being among the biggest marine caverns on the planet. This expanse lies within Belize’s Barrier Reef Reserve System, with its location therefore making it a popular spot for diving. When viewed from above the water, however, the large cobalt chasm is an impressive sight to behold.
And in Turkmenistan there’s a crater that is similarly striking – albeit in a more unsettling way. The so-called “Door to Hell” initially formed when a field of natural gas fell into a cavern beneath the ground. In around 1971 Soviet geologists then set the gas alight to prevent methane from spreading, and the area has been ominously burning ever since.
Another pretty pit – this time of the man-made variety – is the Chand Baori stepwell in Rajasthan, India, which is said to date back to around the 9th century A.D. The 100-foot-deep terraced well features a total of 3,500 steps across three of its sides, with a temple also adjacent. The feature is functional, too; it saves water collected during the rainy season to help the region through the drier months.
And then there are the large man-made pits that exist to help humans reach the Earth’s natural treasures. One such site is the Chuquicamata copper mine in northern Chile, which extends to a impressive 2,790 feet underground. Chuquicamata originally opened in 1910; an expansion in 1968, however, ultimately enabled workers to produce 500,000 tons of copper every year at the location.
Even deeper than Chuquicamata is the mine at Bingham Canyon in Utah’s Salt Lake City, which originally opened back in 1906. In fact, the National Historic Landmark happens to be the biggest human-created excavation on the planet – measuring up at two and a half miles wide. What’s more, it is still the deepest copper mine on Earth to this very day.
But copper isn’t the only material to have led people on an underground search. Indeed, some of the world’s deepest pits have been dug as a means of acquiring diamonds – with the more than 700-foot-deep and 1,519-foot-wide Kimberley Mine in South Africa among them. As many as 50,000 workers armed with picks created the hole, making it the biggest hand-excavated crater on the planet.
Another significant site is the Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada. Situated in a remote location just south of the Arctic Circle, the mine is only reachable by traveling from a nearby airport or over a frozen winter road. Even so, the more than 600-foot-deep pit has produced more than 3,000 pounds of precious stones per year since its opening in 2003.
However, while the Kimberley and Diavik mines are certainly notable, perhaps no diamond excavation site holds quite as much intrigue as the Mir mine in Siberia, Russia. Stretching 1,722 feet underground, it’s actually the fourth deepest mine in the world; the pit’s diameter of 3,900 feet, moreover, makes it among the biggest man-made holes in existence.
But the Mir mine isn’t just a subject of fascination thanks to its epic scale. Some rather odd conspiracy theories have swirled around the location, too. And in turn, these ideas have helped to put the small town of Mirny – which lies close to the mine – firmly on the map. Regardless, though, the origins of the cavern are actually pretty ordinary.
Geologists Viktor Avdeenko, Ekaterina Elagina and Yuri Khabardin first discovered traces of diamonds in the area in June 1955. As a consequence, then, work began on excavating a mine there two years later. The weather conditions experienced in the region meant that penetrating the ground was no simple task, however.
The biting Siberian winter lasts seven months of the year, you see, and during this period the ground often freezes. That said, the earth was hardly easier for the workers to deal with when summer rolled around, as the defrosting process turned the surface to mush. As a result, then, the buildings accompanying the mine had to be constructed on pile foundations to prevent them from becoming submerged when the permafrost thawed.
It was for this reason, too, that the mine’s major processing plant had to be built a dozen miles away – simply, the ground was more stable there. However, the changeable nature of the earth at Mirny was just one of many obstacles facing the construction of the mine. And when winter set in, the difficulties that workers faced there greatly increased.
When the cold months came, for instance, temperatures plummeted so low that oil solidified and steel splintered. In order to break the ground, then, workers deployed jet engines to melt the permafrost, while miners would later use dynamite to blast their way to the diamond-rich rock. And in order to stop overnight freezing of the equipment, the whole mine was covered when darkness fell.
However, the hard labor paid off. During the 1960s, you see, the Mir diamond mine was producing in excess of 4,000 pounds of diamonds every 12 months. What’s more, around a fifth of these stones were considered to be gem quality. But, of course, the earth was not an endlessly renewable resource, and so diamond production eventually dipped to just under 900 pounds of stones a year.
Still, even if fewer diamonds were being unearthed, the Russian mine still had its treasures. In December 1980, for example, workers discovered Mir’s largest ever diamond. This weighed just under 2.5 ounces and was eventually given the not-so-catchy name of the “26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”
And work at the mine continued apace even following the dissolution of the USSR. Sakha Diamond Corp. took over operations there, after which the company reportedly experienced annual profits of more than $600 million. Ultimately, though, Sakha later sold the mine to Alrosa – Russia’s biggest diamond-producing company.
Open-pit mining on the site in Siberia had also stopped by 1999, although diamond recovery operations continued underground until the early 2000s. But the Mir mine has hardly been left abandoned since. It reopened in 2009, in fact, with production tipped to continue for a further half a century. And there, 20-foot-tall haulage trucks ferry rocks from the bottom of the pit to the surface.
But while the Mir mine remains operational, some secrecy does still surround the site. Indeed, when eagle-eyed users spotted the mine on Google Earth in 2018, many were completely clueless as to what the cavernous pit actually was. And in the wake of the discovery, a number of bizarre rumors concerning the mine emerged.
Yet there may be reasons why the mine isn’t particularly well known. For starters, Mirny – where the pit is located – lies more than 150 miles from the next nearest town. Such a remote position, then, goes some way to explaining why the site simply isn’t on many people’s radars. And the BBC has reported, too, that Mirny is “strictly off limits to outsiders” and that “authorities [also] regard any foreigners with considerable suspicion.”
But despite the veil of secrecy cast over Mirny, speculation has nevertheless emerged. It’s been said, for example, that in the 1970s, the Soviet government found diamonds of an even higher quality than those unearthed at the Mir mine. The deposit had formed beneath an impact crater known as Popigai, which is also in Siberia; in order to protect the value of the Mir stones, however, the Soviets kept the discovery hush-hush.
The Popigai crater had come into being around 35 million years ago, when a large meteor struck Earth and left a gaping, 62-mile-wide hole. And that contact had also led to the creation of impact diamonds, which typically form when an asteroid hits a graphite-rich area at high speed.
In the case of the Popigai crater, then, the meteor strike is thought to have produced trillions of carats of diamonds – an amount that had the potential to satisfy global markets for thousands of years. And it wasn’t until 2012 – when diamond production at Mir had slowed significantly – that the Russian government finally revealed what had been found in Popigai.
Perhaps one of the most worrying stories concerning the Mir mine, however, involves helicopters – or, more specifically, that the crafts are not allowed to fly in the airspace above the hole. Why? Well, Atlas Obscura suggested that a ban had come after “a few accidents when [helicopters] were ‘sucked in’ by downward air flow.” The website was quick to point out, however, that there was no proof of any such incidents having taken place.
That being said, the atmospheric conditions created by the mine could very well make it dangerous for helicopter pilots to hover above. According to air vortex theory, when warm air from the mine drifts upwards to cooler air above, it could inhibit the lift helicopters need in order to keep momentum. This, in turn, could cause them to lose altitude.
But while the rumors of helicopters being sucked into the mine are unsubstantiated, there is still solid evidence that the location can be immensely dangerous. In August 2017, for example, it was reported that miners working in the pit were missing following a water surge. At the time of the accident, 151 employees were underground.
It’s been said, moreover, that flooding in the adjacent abandoned open-air mine caused a surge of water into the underground chambers. And according to the emergencies ministry, that hole contained enough liquid to fill 120 swimming pools of Olympic size. However, the exact origin of the accident was not immediately confirmed.
Whatever happened to spark the flooding, though, there was apparently some good news to be had. According to Alrosa, the majority of miners were saved thanks to the use of location determining and an emergency warning system. And while nine workers were still trapped a day after the incident occurred, this number ultimately went down to eight after a miner named Alisher Ismailovich Mirzaev was located through his radio.
Mirzaev didn’t escape his ordeal unscathed, though, meaning he was subsequently rushed to a local hospital with bruising to his lung. Even so, his injuries, while serious, were not life-threatening, according to Alrosa. And while the miner recovered, the search for the final eight missing workers continued.
At this point, the town of Mirny confirmed a state of emergency; Alrosa chief executive Sergey Ivanov, meanwhile, assured everyone that the company was doing all it could to locate the other missing workers. In excess of 330 rescuers and more than 30 equipment units were deployed for the effort, too.
And at first, there may have been hope that the stricken individuals would be found. Using the men’s radio location marks, rescue teams were at least able to estimate where the stranded employees had been in the mine when the accident occurred. However, technicians were unable to contact the workers ahead of the rescue attempt and therefore abandoned their plan. Then, as the days passed, water levels in the submerged mine continued to rise.
In fact, by the 11th day of the search, the mine was under 66 million gallons of water, rendering the search for half of the missing miners too dangerous. At the time of the accident, the workers were split across two levels of the mine: four were on level 210, with the others on level 310. Rescuers therefore continued to search for the men on 210; unfortunately, though, the conditions forced them to give up on reaching those on 310.
In a statement released to The Siberian Times in 2017, Alrosa said, “It is impossible for rescuers to descend to level 310 as it threatens their lives. The rescue activities on level 310 have been stopped.” However, the company declined to speculate on the physical state of the doomed miners trapped on the lower level.
Then, more than three weeks after the accident, Alrosa announced that it was calling off the search for the missing miners. The company claimed that rescue efforts were too dangerous, as there was a risk of the mine collapsing. Furthermore, Alrosa said, medical experts had concluded that the stranded men simply would not have been able to thrive for three weeks in such a humid environment and with no food or water.
Following the incident, Alrosa also estimated that it had suffered a loss of around $200 million in equipment and potential earnings. But, of course, that wasn’t the most tragic outcome of the accident. In a statement reported by The Diamond Loupe, Ivanov said, “The most terrible thing is that people died there. The money is secondary. All the insurance claims will be paid.”
And as long as the abandoned open-air mine at Mir sits empty, it will likely be at risk of flooding. Perhaps, though, the giant crater will ultimately be put to good use. Russian architectural company Ab Elise has proposed, for example, that the space could be transformed into a state-of-the-art eco-city.
This sustainable settlement – which has been dubbed “Eco-city 2020” – would extend nearly 2,000 feet underground and provide homes for 100,000 residents. A glass dome would also protect people from the harsh Siberian elements, it has been mooted, while solar panels would create enough clean energy to power the entire city.
And according to reports, Eco-city 2020 will function over multiple levels, making use of space-saving vertical farms to provide food. Residential and recreational areas would be planned, too, around a core feature that would be located in the center of the city. If successful, then, the settlement may even provide a blueprint for how the world could function in the face of global warming.
So when it comes to the Mir mine, fact may well become a lot stranger than fiction – especially if the plans for Eco-city 2020 come to fruition. If the settlement does become reality, though, it could well attract tourists to the area. And by finally opening the mine area up to the public, the rumors surrounding the strange location could potentially be put to rest.