On what used to be an ancient lakebed in the state of México, just one misstep could send your feet plunging through the surface and suffering nasty burns.
Two weeks ago, residents of Santa Catarina Ayotzingo and San Juan Tezompa, once waterfront villages on a now dried-up part of Lake Chalco, noticed smoke coming from land where residents grow food on the San Miguel Ranch in Chalco, México state.
Upon closer inspection, residents discovered gas was being emitted from the ground and the temperature — reported to be as high as 370 C — was hot enough to melt plastic bags and bottles and burn grass. Rumors of volcanic activity quickly spread among residents of the region.
After all, the Popocatépetl volcano is just 50 kilometers away.
But it was not a new phenomenon and it wasn’t a volcano forming.
San Juan Tezompa resident Leonel Ramírez remembers that it was his father who first told him that the ground sometimes spontaneously ignited on the dried bed of the ancient lake, which he later confirmed.
“When you walk [in that area] you can feel the discomfort in your feet. If you scratch a little at the earth, you feel it even more.”
Local official Pedro Camacho remembered another occasion on which a woman reported she had been walking on the ranch with her young son when suddenly his foot broke though the surface of the ground. The heat burned the boy’s foot.
Geologist Ramón Espinar at the National Center for Disaster Prevention (Cenapred) was called in to inspect the groundsby federal authorities in response to requests from local officials. Chalco Civil Protection head José Antonio Aguilar said the geologist’s investigations led him to conclude that the phenomenon was not caused by volcanic activity.
“People were alarmed because they thought that it was the birth of a volcano, but that theory was discarded. Cenapred explained to us that it is actually peat, an underground fire. This was once a lake, but when it dried up many organic materials and fossils remained and decomposed over time, causing high temperature that set underground fires.”
Aguilar said that local authorities will cordon off the area because of the danger presented by the high temperatures.