Picture the scene: you’re walking through the wilds of Chestnut Ridge Park in New York State. As you pass along the tree-lined tracks, you hear the sound of flowing water. You follow your ears, but as you move you then notice something else. A foul stench is filling the air, and it becomes obvious that something strange is going on here.
After some time, you eventually happen across a beautiful waterfall. It’s a stunning sight, to be sure, and it unquestionably explains the sound of streaming water. But what of the rank odor that pervades your surroundings? You survey the cascades, and then you notice something that you really weren’t expecting.
Chestnut Ridge is a wonderful place, encompassing a huge expanse of land. The park lies across a little more than 1,150 acres, and visitors are free to explore both the man-made facilities and natural wonders that dot the area. Naturally, as its name suggests people can be certain of seeing a vast number of chestnut trees.
But the really special thing about Chestnut Ridge hasn’t got anything to do with the trees that grow there. You see, there’s a secluded part of the park known as the Shale Creek Preserve. Not too many people visit this place, but this is where the most spectacular feature of the whole area can be found.
There’s a stunning waterfall situated in Shale Creek Preserve, a natural feature that’s worthy of appreciation in its own right. But besides its inherent beauty, this formation is actually very special for quite another reason. Despite the cascades of flowing water that define it, a small fire burns at this waterfall’s core.
These flames are quite a shocking thing to behold, and they raise a number of questions. Namely, what’s causing this fire to burn in the first place? And why does it tend not to go out? Scientists have sought to solve this riddle, but they haven’t got too far. The Eternal Flame Falls is a true enigma.
This isn’t to suggest that the fire at the Eternal Flame Falls is the only blaze of its kind. In fact, there are actually countless “unquenchable” flames at various locations on Earth. Many of these, however, are purposely kept alight for a variety of reasons. The flames, for instance, might be religiously significant, or they might serve as a tribute to the dead.
But some eternal flames occur for natural reasons and don’t necessarily stay lit because of human intervention. In the province of Antalya in south Turkey, for example, the phenomenon can be observed on a summit called Mount Olympos. Here, an array of fires known as the Chimaera can be seen burning.
These fires have been raging for a long time now, with some estimates suggesting that they’ve been alight for the last 2,500 years or so. These flames exist because methane gas is seeping through vents in the mountain. Such fissures are responsible for perhaps the most significant discharge of abiogenic methane found anywhere on Earth. Here, “abiogenic” just means methane that hasn’t been produced by the activities of living things.
As soon as the methane gas leaching out of the ground reaches the surface of the mountain, it ignites. It’s possible to put out an individual fire, but a new flame will simply come into being nearby. Sometimes, as many as 30 separate blazes can be seen in the area.
According to reports, the fires tend to be at their most prevalent during the winter. This is quite a typical characteristic of eternal flames such as this, and for good reason, too. You see, the levels of gas beneath the surface can swell at this time of year. That’s down to shifts in the pressure of the atmosphere and higher levels of water below ground.
The resulting flames are quite the dramatic sight, and they’ve led to some lasting myths and legends. Long ago, people of the region concocted an explanation for the fires that suggested they emanated from a beast. Made up of parts of a snake, a lion and a goat, this was the fabled Chimera.
There’s no denying that the flames of Mount Olympos are an amazing sight, but arguably they pale in comparison to what can be seen in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert. Here lies a chasm in the ground known as the Darvaza gas crater. Taking one glance at the pit, it’s easy to see why locals of the region refer to it as “The Gates of Hell.”
Essentially an enormous fiery hole in the ground, the Darvaza gas crater is a terrifying sight. And on top of that, there have been reports of some bizarre occurrences taking place there. Apparently, the chasm can be quite the draw for wildlife. There have supposedly been sightings of huge masses of spiders entering the chamber and meeting their demise among the flames.
But what exactly is this flaming pit in the ground, and how does it stay alight? Well, the answer takes us back to 1971, a time when Turkmenistan was a part of the Soviet Union. That year, people were searching the region for oil. One day, they came across this particular area and, thinking they were standing above oil, they drilled into the surface. Unbeknownst to them, they’d cut through a chamber filled with natural gas.
The ground upon which these people stood caved in, swallowing up all the equipment that had stood on the surface. Moreover, other parts of the desert also started to give way, creating a number of pits all over the place. The largest one reportedly reached a depth of 65 feet below the surface.
According to an account of the incident later published in Smithsonian magazine, nobody was hurt by the immediate destruction. But there was still a pressing issue that needed to be addressed. The gas that had been tapped underground – a mix that consisted predominantly of methane – was now in the atmosphere. Though methane isn’t actually toxic, it does interfere with oxygen levels. As such, animals in the area subsequently had respiratory issues, with many even dying.
Something had to be done. After all, it wasn’t just the depleting levels of oxygen in the area that were a threat. Methane is very flammable, so an explosion would be likely if the release of gas wasn’t brought under control. So, a decision was made. The gas would be set alight under the presumption that it would all burn away in a matter of weeks.
If this sounds to you like a crazy idea, you might be surprised to learn that it’s a common measure to take. In fact, it’s a practice known as “flaring,” and it takes place on gas-drilling sites all over the world. Natural gas needs to be handled as soon as it’s extracted from the earth, but sometimes there’s more than the drillers can use, so the excess is burnt away. According to a report from radio broadcaster NPR, the levels of gas that are wasted are huge. In North Dakota, for example, gas valued at about $1 million is wasted every single day.
Unfortunately efforts to burn the gas away in the Karakum Desert, though, weren’t exactly successful. The levels of gas in the region are unknown, but they must be rather substantial. You see, though it was expected that the gas would burn just for a number of weeks, it’s actually been alight for decades now. The pit still rages to this day.
As we’ve seen, then, strange fires do burn in locations all over the world. So, though it might prove to be a surprising sight for hikers, the fire at the Eternal Flame Falls in Chestnut Ridge Park isn’t totally one-of-a-kind. Having said that, though, it does burn behind a waterfall, which really does make it an exceptional spectacle.
The Eternal Flame Falls are so evocative, in fact, that some strange claims have emerged from the area. There are those who have even claimed to have spotted elves around the waterfall. And while we can confidently brush these assertions aside, the actual science of the place isn’t exactly clear-cut.
When scientists first tried to figure out what was going on at the Eternal Flame Falls, one theory in particular emerged. The fire, this line of thinking went, stayed lit because the particular type of layered rock in the area – known as shale – was naturally searing hot and causing the gas to ignite. But experts associated with Indiana University eventually realized that the rocks below the flames aren’t actually warm enough to account for the blaze.
In reality, the rocks that sit under the waterfall are actually about as warm as a mug full of steaming tea. That might seem hot, but it certainly isn’t enough to cause the flames. Plus, the researchers also found that the shale there doesn’t actually date back as far back as was initially thought.
The falls, then, are mysterious. Having said that, though, scientists can explain certain characteristics of the area. The foul stench that surrounds it, for instance, has been traced to the gases that escape from the shale. Organic materials can be found in these layers of rock, which then decompose and escape because of pressure. This is what causes the smell.
The gases that emerge from the rock are what power the eternal flames that appear in the area. These fires can ignite at a number of spots around the waterfall, with some locations being able to burn for longer than others. The fires do extinguish over time, but anybody in the area can set them alight again.
Despite what scientists do know about the Eternal Flame Falls, there are still questions about what’s really going on. As a matter of fact, one of the researchers looking into the phenomenon acknowledged as much in a statement. According to Indiana University’s Arndt Schimmelmann in 2013, “The story is developing.”
Another person with expertise in this area is Giuseppe Etiope, who’s associated with Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. Having looked upon many natural eternal flames with his own eyes, Etiope has said that in his opinion the one in Chestnut Ridge Park is more beautiful than any other. That’s high praise from a person that’s seen so many globally.
In addition to its unique beauty, the blaze at the Eternal Flame Falls might just have a rare chemical composition. It seems, in fact, that just over a third of the gas leaking from the rock there is made up of ethane and propane. As we’ve already mentioned, usually you would find that methane was the main component of such seepages.
The researchers investigating the gas at the Eternal Flame Falls considered it in contrast to other wells in the region. In doing so, they concluded that the flames at the waterfall are powered by gas seeping from Rhinestreet Shale. Such rock is likely more than 350 million years old and the fuel is reaching the surface through cracks formed by tectonic action.
If gas seepages such as the ones seen at the Eternal Flame Falls are common, the implications could be significant. You see, if these leakages of natural gas happen in lots of different places, then it’s possible that they have a large impact on the environment. After all, they’re essentially just sites of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
The experts involved in the study of New York’s Eternal Flame Falls also looked to Pennsylvania. Here, at Cook Forest State Park, another, more sizable, eternal flame has been noted. This one, however, differs from the fire in Chestnut Ridge Park in that it’s powered by a deserted gas well.
According to one of the scientists involved in the Eternal Flame Falls research, a large proportion – roughly a third – of the Earth’s methane emissions occur naturally. Second only to emissions from wetlands, natural gas seepages are among the most prominent sources of methane expulsion on the planet.
Yet it’s actually very difficult to track down these seepages. To give one example, when experts looked for natural gas leaks in Kentucky – a region that’s notable for anecdotal evidence of escaping gas – they hit a brick wall. They couldn’t actually find any substantial proof that such leaks occurred there.
But other discoveries have been made over the years. Geologist Schimmelmann noted that caves have been noted to contain high levels of carbon dioxide, which itself is a greenhouse gas. That said, CO2 is actually about 20 times less capable of capturing heat than methane gas.
The implication of this finding suggests that natural gas seepages might be more likely to be recorded inside caves. But more research will ultimately be required if experts are to get to the bottom of such phenomena. And there are plenty of places in the United States that would make for great sites of investigation, such as in Virginia or Pennsylvania.
In any case, regardless of the mysterious scientific explanation behind it, the Eternal Flame Falls is an amazing place. As waterfalls go, it’s clearly unique, defined by a flame that burns on despite the cascades of water that surround it. In this way, we can say that the site is among the most strange and special places on Earth.
If you ever find yourself in the area, it would be a terrible waste not to look for the waterfall. But you should be careful on your adventure, as it isn’t necessarily the safest path to follow. If there’s been a lot of rainfall, for instance, the trail could prove to be slippy. Plus, sections of the area are quite steep and tricky to maneuver across.
Accidents aren’t exactly uncommon in Chestnut Ridge Park. Each year, there are people who end up getting hurt as they pass through the woods, sometimes slipping off the beaten track and taking a fall. Individuals have even lost their lives in the park, so a trip there is not to be taken lightly.
Having said all that, provided that all necessary precautions are taken, the Eternal Flame Falls can be a magical place. And if you visit in the spring or the fall, you might just get the best out of the place. The phenomenon of the eternal flame, after all, is something to be experienced firsthand.