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In 1850, Irish explorer Robert McClure saw smoke rising from the eastern seaboard of Cape Bathurst in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Him and his crew on board HMS investigator were delighted. They hoped it was a smoke signal from John Franklin and his lost expedition, which had gone missing as he searched for the Northwest Passage five years earlier.

Much to their dismay, Franklin was nowhere in sight. Instead, they traveled up the multi-colored craggy shore to find a hellish scene of sulfuric ponds and smoking rocks. McClure is said to have brought a stone to his ship as a souvenir. He burned a hole in his mahogany desk.

Smoldering hills of the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Ray Muzyka / Flickr

It was actually Sir John Franklin who first discovered and named the Smoking Hills during his previous Mackenzie River expedition (1825-1827). They were mapping the Horton River when they saw smoke rising from the 100m hills.

The naturalist of this Mackenzie River expedition, John Richardson, speculated that the oxidation of sulfuric minerals and organic matter in the shale was to blame. He was right. Most originally believed that volcanic or hydrothermal activity was causing the smoke. However, the unique site is home to underground oil shales, which spontaneously ignite as the rock deteriorates and erodes.

Clouds of smoke from brown coal deposits. Photo: Michael D. Turnbull

These deposits consist of lignite (brown coal) and high concentrations of sulfuric substances, which ignite on contact with oxygen. Oxygen consumes electrons in pyrite and organic matter in shale. This releases a large amount of heat and hundreds of grams of sulfur dioxide every second. The rocks which undergo this process are called “bocannes”. The varied hot temperatures make the rocks red, black, brown, yellow and white.

On top of that, toxic ponds one meter deep dot the one hectare area. These caustic ponds contain high concentrations of minerals such as aluminum, manganese, zinc, iron, cadmium and nickel and are home to 14 species of acid tolerant algae. From written records and oral tradition, it seems that the hills have been burning for centuries. Sometimes, however, the exothermic reactions dissipate when oxygen levels die off as the shale burns further up the cliff.

The Paulatuk people, who live nearly 100 km away, have always called the hills “the place of soot” or “the place of coal”.

A face of eroding mud. Photo: Michael D. Turnbull

The Smoking Hills are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Northwest Territories. No road is nearby; they are only accessible by boat or helicopter. Visitors rarely set foot on the smoky, highly toxic and polluting shore.

The hills have had an impact on their environment, especially the tundra further inland. The sulfur dioxide acidified the soil. The closer you get to the sea, the more desolate the land is, as the flora has a hard time resisting the acidity.

It seems to be one of those rare examples of natural pollution.

About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.

Since graduating with a BA in English and History from the University of Leicester, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before embarking on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional travel journalism degree with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.

Currently, she works in a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also the Weird Wonder Woman of ExWeb, reporting the natural quirks of the world as well as general stories from the world of exploration.

Although not a climber (yet!), She hikes in the bush, is known to befriend iguanas, and quotes the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.


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Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes

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