Natural Wonders: Eternal Flame Falls

In Western New York, leaking natural gas from deep in the earth has created Eternal Flame Falls, an otherworldly combination of a waterfall and a neverending flame.

Traditionally, an eternal flame is a symbol of immortality, memory, and gratitude. You will find one in almost every country, a propane-fueled device close to a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to honor the fallen of past wars. But did you know that nature has its own way of preserving memory?

Legend has it that a Native American lit the first flame eons ago. Others say that elves reside in this woodland. But of course, like any natural wonder, there is always an explanation.

Eternal Flame Falls Fire Closeup

Eternal Flame. Photo: Shutterstock


There are nine natural eternal flames in the world and the most famous is the Eternal Flame Falls in Western New York. Tucked in a small grotto of shale, a flame 75cm tall flickers behind a nine-metre waterfall whose flow varies with the rainfall.

It formed during the Devonian Period over 350 million years ago. While it takes on a rather magical appearance as it burns, it does not always stay lit. Strong winds or water may extinguish it, prompting locals and visitors to reignite the flame with matches or a lighter. 

The phenomenon is the result of a macro seep, a spot in the ground where natural gas — methane, ethane, and propane — under pressure escapes through cracks in the rock.

The seep emits approximately one kilogram of methane a day. Unlike most seeps in which bacteria in the soil eat methane and convert it to carbon dioxide, there is no conversion. Rather, high concentrations of flammable ethane and propane from a pocket some 400m below the surface rise to emit a pungent, rotten-egg smell.

Eternal Flame Falls

Photo: Shutterstock


In 2013, researchers studied how these seeps contribute to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. They discovered that this particular one has the highest concentration of ethane and propane ever found in the wild. Methane is the usual gas found in natural hydrocarbon seeps, which make up about 30 percent of global methane emissions.

These faults in the shale are thought to be a result of tectonic movement. The rock is hot to the touch, but not lava hot: about the same temperature as a cup of tea. 

While this is not a dangerous spot for visitors because of tectonics, erosion from visitors’ boots has made the footing slippery. Spills have caused multiple accidents and even deaths in the past. 

If you decide to visit, make sure to bring your hiking pole — and your lighter.