Environment Planet Earth 10 Naturally Occurring Eternal Flames By Catie Leary Writer and Photographer Georgia State University Catie Leary writes and curates visual stories about science, animals, the arts, travel, and the natural world. our editorial process Catie Leary Updated April 16, 2021 Ethiopia's Erta Ale lava lake was discovered in 1906 and is still burning more than a century later. Harri Jarvelainen Photography / Getty Images Share Twitter Pinterest Email Environment Weather Outdoors Conservation An eternal flame, as its name suggests, is a fire that burns for an indefinite amount of time. It can be ignited intentionally or when lightning strikes a natural gas leak, peat, or a coal seam. In any case, "naturally occurring" eternal flames continue to burn without tending, even if they were lit by people initially — they are kept alight only by natural gas, coal, or volcanic gases. This fascinating phenomenon occurs all around the world, from Pennsylvania to Azerbaijan, and holds spiritual significance in some cultures and religions. Here are 10 of the world's most eerily alluring, naturally occurring eternal flames. 1 of 10 Door to Hell, Turkmenistan EdoTealdi / Getty Images Located in the middle of the Karakum Desert in Central Asia, this natural gas field was discovered in the 1970s by Soviet petrochemical engineers. Shortly after the drilling operation was established, the ground underneath the site collapsed, burying the rig and camp. Luckily, no lives were lost, but as large quantities of poisonous methane gas spewed from the site, engineers decided the safest option would be to set the gas alight and let it burn off rather than endanger nearby villagers by continuing to extract it. The fire was expected to last only for a few weeks, but half a century later, the Door to Hell — also called the Darvaza gas crater — is still burning. 2 of 10 Centralia, Pennsylvania weible1980 / Getty Images Once home to more than 1,000 people, Centralia became a ghost town after an uncontrollable coal mine fire forced the evacuation of almost all of its residents in 1984. The fire is believed to have sparked in 1962, but it wasn't until decades later that residents began noticing the tangible effects of having a subterranean wildfire blazing underneath their homes and businesses. A now-famous road that was once part of Route 61 buckled under the pressure, emitting smoke from its vast cracks until about 2017. Since being abandoned, visitors have taken to decorating it with graffiti. Today, less than 10 people live in Centralia, though there are plenty of tourists who stop by to explore the melting asphalt and sinkholes. 3 of 10 Eternal Flame Falls, New York Gregory Pleau / www.gregorypleau.com / Getty Images Perpetually flickering inside a grotto behind a waterfall in Chestnut Ridge County Park, this small flame is fueled by a deposit of natural gas believed to be emanating from a hydrocarbon seep supplied by Rhinestreet Shale, a geologic formation located more than 1,000 feet underground. The flame sometimes sputters out and must be reignited by passing hikers carrying lighters. In any case, the gas keeps it alight throughout all seasons — even when the waterfall that surrounds it freezes over. 4 of 10 Erta Ale, Ethiopia guenterguni / Getty Images Erta Ale, meaning "smoking mountain" in the Afar language, is a 2,011-foot-high basaltic shield volcano located in the Afar Depression, an Ethiopian desert. Its most notable feature is its active lava lake, a phenomenon so rare that only six examples currently exist on the planet. The lava lake occurs because of an underground pool containing active magma. Erta Ale's goes through phases, occasionally cooling (in which a black layer can be seen on top) and spewing 13-foot-high plumes. It's the world's longest-existing lava lake, discovered in 1906. 5 of 10 Jharia Coalfield, India Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images These smoldering fields in Jharia, Jharkhand, are one of India's most valuable coal resources, containing about 20 billion tons of coking coal. The fields are located on top of an underground fire that has been burning since at least 1916. Unlike the case with Centralia, hundreds of thousands of people still reside in Jharia despite the water and air pollution created by the coalfield's century-old underground fire. 6 of 10 Guanziling Water and Fire Cave, Taiwan 月亮灣 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 Because the town of Guanziling, Tainan, sits on a fault line containing methane deposits, the gas often escapes into the air through cracks in the Earth. In the case of this famous Water and Fire Cave, methane bubbles that emerge from the hot springs provide fuel to a flame that was lit more than 300 years ago, as legend goes. 7 of 10 Yanar Dag, Azerbaijan kaetana_istock / Getty Images According to Greek mythology, the Caucasus Mountains is where Zeus chained Prometheus, the Titan god of fire, after discovering that he had stolen a spark from Zeus and gave it to mortals. Thus, the country of Azerbaijan is often referred to as the Land of Fire — it even has a red flame as the centerpiece of its national emblem — and that nickname is corroborated by its "burning mountain," Yanar Dag. Emanating from a weak layer of porous sandstone on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula, this ever-burning natural gas fire is capable of shooting nine-foot flames. The best time to observe the colors of the flames is at dusk. 8 of 10 Baba Gurgur, Iraq Chad.r.hill / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain This burning oil field near the city of Kirkuk is one of the largest in the world — second only to Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field. Baba Gurgur was discovered in the '20s and is a large source of energy, but it's also an important cultural and spiritual site for the local residents. In ancient times, when fire worshipping was common, expectant mothers visited the site to pray for baby boys. Some believe this burning field is referenced in the Bible as the "fiery furnace" of the Old Testaments' Book of Daniel. In that story, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon threw a group of Hebrews into the flames for refusing to idol worship. 9 of 10 Yanartas, Turkey MykolaIvashchenko / Getty Images Yanartaş (Turkish for "flaming stone") is an odd geographical site that features dozens of little fires caused by methane gas vents in a rocky mountainside. The fires have been burning for an estimated 2,500 years. Yanartaş is believed to be the ancient Mount Chimaera, where the legend of the chimera, a mythical fire-breathing hybrid monster composed of body parts from several different animals (usually a lion, goat, and snake), emerged. 10 of 10 Smoking Hills, Canada Se Mo / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 Located in the Northwest Territories, on Cape Bathurst's east coast, the Smoking Hills are rugged, red-orange cliffs that have been continuously smoking for centuries. They conceal underground sulfur- and coal-rich oil shales whose combustible gases ignite as the cliffs erode and expose them to oxygen. The Smoking Hills were discovered and named by explorer John Franklin in 1826, although they are thought to have already been burning for centuries before. What Is Oil Shale? Oil shale is sedimentary rock containing solid organic matter that yields petroleum products, like oil and combustable gas. The eternal flame has chemically altered the soil, sediment, and water in the area. Local indigenous communities have long relied on the coal in this region — the nearest community, Paulatuk, is even named after the Inuvialuktun word for "place of coal."