“Eye of Fire”: Science or Science Fiction?

By: Atara Neugroschl  |  July 21, 2021

By: Atara Neugroschl

Images of fire erupting on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, accompanied by the caption “Eye of Fire,” have swarmed the internet. These pictures, which appear more science fiction than science, were taken on July 2nd after a gas pipe exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The gas pipe leak, controlled by Mexico’s government-owned oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, occurred at 5:15 am. Claiming to have followed standard protocol, Pemex shut off the pipeline and extinguished the fire about five hours later, at 10:45 am. While the impact that this leak had on marine life is still unclear, authorities claim that the break in the pipe “did not cause a spill” and no person had been injured.

While the images of water on fire seem to defy all laws of nature, scientists have commented explaining the science behind the bizarre scene. An organic geochemistry professor at Macquarie University in Australia, Dr. Simon George, explained that the fire occurred only on the surface of the water. Due to the leak, hydrocarbons, such as methane, ethane, and propane, rose to the surface of the gulf. In an unexpected mix of unfortunate events, the leak happened at the same time as a lightning storm, which ignited the hydrocarbon stream. Because there was a constant flow of hydrocarbons, the fire had continuous fuel and was able to persist.

Being that the fire was fueled by hydrocarbons, it could not be extinguished by water alone. Instead, nitrogen gas was injected into the fire while it was doused with water. Dr. Christopher Reddy, an expert in oil spill science at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, explained that the nitrogen shut off the oxygen supply to the fire, which was necessary for the fire to consume the fossil fuels and continue burning. After suffocating the flames and shutting off the pipe, thereby stopping the fuel source, the fire was able to be extinguished.

This startling event has sparked conversations surrounding climate change and fossil fuels. Pemex is notorious for having had instances of spills, leaks, and fires in the past, including a leak in April at their well in Sota la Marina and a fire in February at their Tula-Salamanca pipeline. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has invested money into Pemex, trying to strengthen the failing oil company and increase their ability to make Mexico self-sufficient in energy. People have criticized the President for moving in the wrong direction when Mexico should instead be investing in greener energy.  

Hydrocarbons remain one of the main contributors to global warming and climate change, and the release of hydrocarbons into the air and water on July 2nd may have detrimental impacts on both people and animals. Climate change activists and scientists worldwide are hoping that the jarring images surrounding the “Eye of Fire” may have a positive effect in alerting people to the urgency of climate change and the need to cut back on fossil fuels.

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