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Mountain's 'Fire-Breathing' For Thousands Of Years Due To Underground Methane, Study Finds

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What has been causing a mountain in Turkey to spew fire for thousands of years? Researchers of a new study say that the fires are being fueled by methane seeping from underground, possibly due to a process called serpentinization.

The Flames Of Chimaera

In southern Turkey, there is a mountain that has been spewing fire for at least 2,000 years. Also called “the fire which never goes out,” the mysterious feature has also been featured in Homer’s The Iliad. According to local myths, the flames are the breath of a monster, but researchers of a new study say that it is not a monster’s breath but rather gas seeping from under the ground.

Abiotic Methane

In a study published last March in the journal Applied Geochemistry, researchers found that the source of the eternal flame is actually methane, though possibly from a different source than we are familiar with. Typically, methane is produced when organic matter decays underground and mixes with hydrogen. However, the process is not the same for abiotic methane, as it does not require decaying organic matter to form.

Researchers hypothesize that abiotic methane is produced by a process called serpentinization, in which water seeps through material in the Earth’s mantle and causes a reaction that results in the release of hydrogen. When it reacts with carbon gas in deep Earth, a chemical reaction results in the production of methane.

This means that in the case of the Flames of Chimaera, it is possible that the flames are a result of the interaction between carbon dioxide-rich limestone and hydrogen-rich serpentinized rocks that were doused with water.

Seeping Methane

The mountainside in Turkey is not the only place where serpentinization occurs. In fact, there are many other sites all around the world where methane is seeping from underground, from California and Italy, to Serbia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.

According to researchers, the phenomena is actually not that rare. However, it may help in identifying signs of life in other worlds, in that studying the phenomena can help determine whether traces of methane on other planets are a result of the presence of organic material or simply of serpentinization.

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