Secrets of Black Sea: Is it possible to set fire to the Black Sea?

The famous children’s writer Korney Chukovsky anticipated the answer to this question a year before the events connected to the ‘burning sea’. He wrote in his well-known poem ‘Confusion’ (1926): “…And the foxes took matches, went to the blue sea and set it on fire…”. On September 11th, 1927 at 22:15 there was an 8-9 magnitude earthquake in Crimea. Many cities of the Southern coast were badly damaged. The frightened citizens dealing with the consequences of the disaster did not notice an extraordinary event, which happened in the sea. A huge fire line was observed from three lighthouses located on the western coast of the Black Sea 5.5km away from the seashore between Sevastopol and Cape Lucull. This phenomenon was described at the time by a famous professor and geologist named Sergey Popov. It was assumed that the fire was a result of an inflammation of methane gas coming out of the cracks on the continental slope bottom at a depth of about 200m. Unfortunately, the vessel sent to explore the phenomenon was immediately caught in a storm and stranded not far from Khersoness lighthouse.

The first report of the discovery of ‘cold seep’-type methane jet gas emissions (which differ from hot hydrothermal sources, or ‘smokers’) was published in 1976 as a result of studies across the Gulf of Mexico shelf near the USA. In the Black Sea, these cold seep emissions were detected in 1989. The discovery had great significance as a new chemo-ecological factor, involved in the origination of unusual varieties of life at the bottom of the sea, and also as an important indicator of gas deposits.

Methane gas emission areas are specific formations on the seafloor resembling volcanoes, not higher than half a metre and comprised of calcium carbonate. In the Black Sea, methane discharge takes place at depth, within the anoxic zone. Bacteria able to dispose methane for the creation of organic matter are discovered here. But nobody had yet succeeded in getting axenic (i.e. single species) cultures of these bacteria.

As it turned out, jet methane gas emissions in the Black Sea are widespread at different depths. In 2007, a new marine reserve ‘Methanogenic structures from Sfântu Gheorghe branch’ was established on the Romanian shelf in front of the Danube Delta. This reserve placed under protection the new biotype of methane emissions, including all the resulting unique organisms, composed of mostly unexplored species.

So, the answer to the question posed in the beginning may be affirmative. Sometimes even the sea can burn if it has methane deposits below the seafloor. 

The publication was prepared with the financial support of the EU – UNDP project ‘Improving Environmental Monitoring in the Black Sea: Selected measures’ (EMBLAS-Plus). This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union and UNDP. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or UNDP.

Authors: B. Aleksandrov, O. Adrianova, N. Atamas, V. Bolshakov, O. Bondarenko, I. Chernichko, V. Demchenko, S. Dyatlov, Y. Dykhanov, E. Dykyi, O. Garkusha, P. Gol’din, S. Hutornoy, V. Komorin, Y. Kvach, V. Mamaev, O. Manturova, O. Marushevska, A. Mikelyan, Yu. Mikhalev, G. Minicheva, I. Sinegub, T. Shiganova, J. Slobodnik, A. Snigiryova, M. Son, K. Vishnyakova, A. Zotov. Illustrator: I. Pustovar.