An "eternal flame" tucked behind a western New York state waterfall could have been lit as many as thousands of years ago—but it's only now revealing secrets about the natural gas that fuels it. There are thought to be a few hundred of these natural flames around the world, though the one in Chestnut Ridge Park has been dubbed the planet's "most beautiful" eternal flame by Giuseppe Etiope, an expert on such flames. LiveScience reports that Etiope and two members of the Indiana Geological Survey recently studied the flame, and found that while the gas that feeds it usually hails from scalding-hot shale buried well below the Earth's surface, the shale under this flame is just warm, "like a cup of tea."
Typically, those boiling temperatures allow for the breakdown of the carbon molecules within the shale into natural gas; in this case, it appears that organic molecules in the shale are forming the gas via a mysterious catalyst. "This mechanism has been proposed for many years, but it was a curiosity that nobody believed in," says one of the researchers. It could be happening elsewhere, too, which would suggest that "we have much more shale-gas resources than we thought," he notes. Interestingly, setting fire to gas seeps like this one could help the environment: When lit, emerging methane becomes carbon dioxide, posing less of a heat-trapping threat. (Read more nature stories.)