If you happened to see "Sauron's eye" or "Cthulhu" trending Friday evening, it wasn't because some fictional entity was making headlines. It was something even more real and disturbing— a fire in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, caused by a leak from an underwater gas pipeline. The blaze spotted on the surface of the water early Friday west of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula erupted about 500 feet from an oil drilling platform belonging to Pemex, Mexico's state oil company, and it took Pemex about five hours to put out the fire, extinguishing it for good at 10:45am local time, per Reuters. That dousing didn't stop the mesmerizing image of an "eye of fire" in the middle of the ocean from going viral, with ABC7 noting it looked like "a scene from a disaster movie." "Others said it looked like the portal to hell opening up," the station added.
So how can an ocean, filled with water, actually catch on fire? Simon George, an organic geochemistry professor at Australia's Macquarie University, tells CNET that the blaze "was caused by methane and probably other wet gas components (ethane, propane, etc.) igniting at the ocean surface after leaking from the pipeline," with enough gas continuing to flow from the rupture to keep the fire burning. George adds that the fire may have even been helpful in one regard: "It consumed some of the leaking hydrocarbons," containing some of the damage. Pemex brought boats in to douse the fire with water, per USA Today, with Reuters noting that nitrogen was also used. Pemex says no injuries were reported and that it's investigating the incident, per Reuters, which notes the company "has a long record of major industrial accidents at its facilities." (Read more gas leak stories.)