Nestled behind a waterfall in western New York state is an eternal flame whose beauty is only surpassed by its mystery. It is one of a few hundred "natural" eternal flames around the world, fed by gas seeping to the Earth's surface from underground, said Arndt Schimmelmann, a researcher at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
But even within this rarefied group, this flame is special. Perhaps lit by Native Americans hundreds or thousands of years ago, it is fed by a new type of geologic process that hasn't been recorded before in nature, Schimmelmann told OurAmazingPlanet.
Typically, this type of gas is thought to come from deeply submerged, ancient and extremely hot deposits of shale, a kind of rock. Temperatures have to be near the boiling point of water or hotter to break down the large carbon molecules in shale and create smaller molecules of natural gas, Schimmelmann explained. (Image Gallery: One-of-a-Kind Places on Earth)
A curiosity "nobody believed in"
In this case, though, the rocks that feed the flame are only warm - "like a cup of tea" - as well as geologically younger than expected, and shallow, Schimmelmann said. Those findings suggest the gas is being produced by a different process, whereby some sort of catalyst is creating gas from organic molecules in the shale, he said.