In a national park a four-hour drive north of Sydney in Australia, a fire is burning out of control – and it’s been doing so for at least 6,000 years.
Known as Burning Mountain or “The Burning Mountain”, this mysterious underground fire is the oldest known on the planet. And some scientists estimate that it may be much older than we currently think.
The fire is located under Mount Wingen in the state of New South Wales, Australia. Wingen means ‘fire’ in the language of the local Wanaruah people, the traditional custodians of the land. His ardor is underground, for It is a coal seam fire, one of thousands that burns anywhere, all the time, all over the world.
Once lit, these underground fires are almost impossible to put out. Slowly but intensely they travel through the coal seam, a layer that occurs naturally below the Earth’s surface.
“No one knows the size of the fire below Burning Mountain, it can only be inferred ”, he says ScienceAlert Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College London in the UK.
“It is likely to be a ball of around 5 to 10 meters in diameter, which reaches temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius.“, Explain.
Rein visited Burning Mountain In 2014, it was on his field trip list.
Unlike a typical fire, a coal seam fire burns underground, which means that there is no flame and it looks more like the embers of a barbecue than a typical charcoal fire. Nor should it be confused with more dramatic coal seam gas fires, which are known to set even waterways ablaze.
The Mount Wingen fire is currently burning at about 30 meters underground and moving south at a speed of around 1 meter per year.
The natural park where it is located is open to tourists, who only have as evidence of its existence a little smoke, white ash, earth warm to the touch, discolored yellow and red rocks, and a sulfuric odor emitted as if from below the earth that is produced by the minerals below the mountain that are cooked by the underground fire. Something that, however, is almost invisible to notice for the poorly trained eye.
But even though it is now nearly invisible, the path the fire has taken is visible upon closer investigation, with more recently burned areas covered in ash and devoid of plant life.
“In front of the fire where it has not arrived, you can see this beautiful eucalyptus forest. Where the fire is now there is absolutely nothing alive, not even grass ”, Rein says. “And where the fire was 20 or 30 years ago, the forest has returned, but it is a different forest, the fire has shaped the landscape.”
Many coal seam fires, particularly those in India, China and the US, are caused by human interference, such as coal mining; for example the infamous fire below Centralia, Pennsylvania, the now deserted town that inspired Silent Hill, which It has been burning for almost 60 years.
But that’s a mere blink of an eye compared to thousands of years of Burning Mountain.
Who started the fire?
Interestingly, no one is sure what turned it on first.
The first documented European sighting was in 1828, when a local laborer declared that he had discovered a volcano in the Mount Wingen region.
Just a year later, in 1829, geologist Reverend CPN Wilton concluded that the alleged volcano was actually a fire in a coal seam. Since then, measurements have shown that the fire path covers about 6.5 kilometers, suggesting that it has been on for at least 6,000 years. But other than that, hardly any official investigation has been conducted in the area.
The site is considered sacred by traditional custodians, the Wanaruah people, who used it for cooking and making weapons. Their origin stories tell of a widow whose tears lit fire, or the torch of a warrior captured by the ‘Evil One’ beneath the mountain.
According to Rein, natural causes are the most likely source.
“Anthropogenic interference cannot be ruled out, but most likely they were natural causes”, Explain. “It could have been a lightning wildfire that ignited an outcrop. Or it could have been a self-heating ignition. “
Self-heating ignition occurs when the coal seam is close enough to the surface for the coal to be exposed to oxygen. If there are enough sunny and hot days in a row – something we’ll see more of with climate change – the surface of the charcoal gets hot enough to heat the next piece in the seam, ultimately causing ignition.
Studies show that The self-heating point of coal can range from 35 to 140 degrees Celsius.
What is perhaps most fascinating is that it is also not known exactly how old the fire is. Researchers have found evidence indicating that the same fire could have been burning for much longer.
“It’s not just that it’s 6,000 years old, it’s at least 6,000 years old. “Rein says. “It could actually be hundreds of thousands of years old.”
This evidence is unpublished and has not been peer reviewed, so it should be taken with caution. But it only adds to the mystery of this little-studied fire.
How long will Mount Wingen burn? Nobody knows that either; it is not known how far the coal seam extends or where it goes next. For now, there is no shortage of oxygen supply.
“As the fire advances, it heats the mountain causing it to expand and crack, letting in oxygen so that the fire can advance. Fire produces its own chimney and its own oxygen supply ”, highlights.
“It could burn for thousands of years without human intervention”, ends.
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