An eternal flame burns in New York
A strange glow is emanating from behind a waterfall in New York. It’s origin? An eternal flame fueled by natural gas.
Eternal flames are usually man-made, kept alive through diligent care, and reserved for sacred shrines or the Olympic Games. Sometimes though, nature will make one as well. There’s a water fall in Erie County, New York, and behind the rushing water is the glow of a small, but ever-present flame.
The flame has now been studied in detail. A team of scientists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, Italy, led by Giuseppe Etiope, have analyzed the flame and tried to figure out the exact workings that keep it burning.
Natural flames usually arise in areas where natural gas seeps out from underground rocks. Sometimes the flow will concentrate into a “macroseep”, and if this ignites, it can create a flame that never goes out. The one in Erie burns around one kilogram of natural gas, mostly methane, every day and is about 20cm tall. Apart from methane, it contains ethane and propane; the largest concentrations ever found in a natural seep. The source of the flame is a shale some 400 meters below ground.
Tectonic events in the area surrounding the flame have led to the ground becoming “naturally fracked”. This suggests the area is a good place for hydrocarbon exploration (such as mining for natural gas), without needing to resort to artificially fracking.
Apart from mining prospects, natural flames such as this one have important implications for our atmosphere. Nearly one third of all the methane in our atmosphere comes from natural sources such as seepage or methane production in wetlands.