A couple of weekends ago I was visiting relatives near Buffalo and attended the annual family reunion picnic – now at least in its 60th year – at Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park, NY. It was an unbelievably perfect late summer day with plenty of sunshine, dry air and warm but not oppressive temperatures. The company was great, the food divine and conversations many.
A second cousin of mine, Louise, (also a lover of the written word) had heard of an extremely unusual natural occurrence at the park and in between lunch and dinner (not that you had to stop eating) a small group of us decided to go and seek it out. What we were looking for was the ‘Eternal Flame’ of Chestnut Ridge Park. It actually took us a couple of trips down the road to find the entrance to the parking lot where we could hike down to this wonder.
After following a steeper and steeper downhill path, we found ourselves in a creek bed – Shale Creek to be exact. Fortunately there had not been much rain lately and the creek bed was pretty dry. There was a path alongside the creek but without much water, the creek bed was a bit easier a traverse. We probably only hiked a quarter of a mile but it seemed longer. My cousin’s son accidently stepped near a bee nest and got stung. I brushed against some wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) with my bare leg and that was painful too. I just was not anticipating stinging nettles along a very shaded creek bed. I have a patch of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) in my yard and they are in a sunny, dry spot. I should have recognized the similar looking flowers though!
Eventually we came to a 30 foot or so waterfall that was mostly trickling and a few feet from the bottom in a small grotto was the ‘Eternal Flame’. Layers of shale from the Devonian Epoch made up the rock face that the waterfall flowed over as well as the creek bed and sides according to a sign at the trail head. Natural gas, usually consisting of methane but in this particular site a study revealed high concentrations of ethane and propane as well, was being emitted from the shale and burned fairly brightly. Who first discovered this and lit it? All I could find is a suggestion that perhaps it was Native Americans hundreds or thousands of years ago. Wish I could have been there!
Recent popularity of this natural wonder was prompted by the Department of Energy which had asked Dr. Arndt Schimmelmann of Indiana University and his colleague, Dr. Maria Mastalerz of the Indiana Geological Survey to estimate how much methane seeps out of the ground in parts of the eastern U.S. They invited Dr. Giuseppe Etiope from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy and a renowned expert on eternal flames and gas seeps to join them. The conclusions of their study were reported in the journal, Marine and Petroleum Geology.
The Chestnut Ridge site proved very interesting because typically the gas seeps arise deep underground in extremely hot deposits of shale. The hot temperatures are able to breakdown the larger carbon molecules in the shale into smaller natural gas ones that can rise to the Earth’s surface according to Dr. Schimmelmann. But at this site the shale rocks that create the gas that feeds the flame are cooler, younger and shallower suggesting a different natural mechanism is at work. These findings may be important in natural gas explorations.
I thought a lot of the methane (a greenhouse gas) in our atmosphere came from the anaerobic decomposition of organic matter (like in landfills) and also from farm animals but apparently 30 percent of the total amount of methane emitted worldwide does originate from natural sources like these gas seeps. Also I learned that letting these eternal flames burn, when possible, is not such a bad idea as fire converts methane to carbon dioxide. Yes, carbon dioxide is another greenhouse gas but it traps about 20 times less heat than methane does!
Go find a natural wonder near you!