How Does This Flame Hidden in Chestnut Ridge Falls Stay Lit?
A trail in Shale Creek Preserve in western New York is home to one of the most unique, mysterious "eternal flames" in the world.
What's the Science Behind it?
Eternal Flame Falls is a 35-foot waterfall and one of its grottos actually contains a small flickering flame about 8 inches high and believed to be lit thousands of years ago by Native Americans. For a long time, scientists have believed that the fire burns because of gas pockets that rise from the old, extremely hot bedrock made of shale. The rock's high temperatures break down the carbon molecules in the shale, which in turn creates natural gas.
However, a group of scientists from Indiana University led by Professor Arndt Schimmelmann, found that the shale under the waterfall isn't actually hot enough or old enough to be causing the formation of gas pockets. Schimmelmann says, “This flame and these seepages have occurred for millions of years in those areas and we know that the source rock, about 400 meters deep, is not very warm. It should not even be able to produce much gas at this temperature, yet the gas is coming and it’s not being depleted. So our hypothesis is that a different mechanism is responsible for continuous gas generation at depth.” In other words, something else must be keeping the "eternal flame" burning and to this day researchers still don't know exactly what that may be.
Mysterious and Definitely One of a Kind
Even though there are hundreds of 'natural' eternal flames around the world, the one in Shale Creek Preserve is definitely one of a kind. With the breathtaking image of a small but mighty flame under massive torrents of water, Eternal Flame Falls remains a scientific mystery.
Planning to visit? If so, make sure to bring a lighter with you because despite its reputation for being "eternal," the flame actually goes out sometimes when winds blow water into the grotto. In fact, kind hikers relight the flame whenever it goes out. While the hike there is only about half a mile, it can get quite muddy and difficult during the rainy season. Just wear a good pair of hiking shoes and start trekking!