Mud Volcanoes in Azerbaijan

Updated: Sep 28, 2021 06:48 GMT
Mysterious Phenomena Fascinate Scientists and Tourists
by Ronnie Gallagher (republished from azer.com with kind permission of the author)
At Cape Alyat on the Caspian. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
At Cape Alyat on the Caspian. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Example of mud volcanic activity - pools and mudflows. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Example of mud volcanic activity - pools and mudflows. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Brianna Sinqufield, thoroughly enjoying a day at the mud volacones. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Brianna Sinqufield, thoroughly enjoying a day at the mud volacones. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Group at a mud volcano. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Group at a mud volcano. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
"Mud volcanoes," also known as "sedimentary volcanoes" or "gas - oil volcanoes," are close cousins to magmatic volcanoes. Just like magmatic volcanoes, they can erupt powerfully and hurl flames to great heights (sometimes even several hundred of meters). They spew out millions of cubic meters of hydrocarbon gases and tons of mud. Mud volcanoes also exist on the floor of the sea and can form islands and banks that alter the topography and shape of the coastline and even trigger earthquakes.

Another feature of mud volcanoes is their direct relationship to oil and gas fields. Mud volcanoes resemble super-deep exploration wells in the sense that they are direct indicators of hydrocarbons at great depths and provide valuable information on the formation and migration of oil and gas. Both mud volcanoes and hydrocarbon fields are the result of a single process of oil and gas formation, which has a characteristic vertical zone with methane gas forming in younger strata, overlying a zone of intense formation of oil and fatty gases.
Scientists study mud volcanoes to understand the nature of hydrocarbon activity beneath the earth's surface. There are more mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan than any other country. (Photo: Litvin)
Scientists study mud volcanoes to understand the nature of hydrocarbon activity beneath the earth's surface. There are more mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan than any other country. (Photo: Litvin)
Mud Gryphon. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Mud Gryphon. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)

Land of Fire

Updated: Sep 28, 2021 06:48 GMT
Mud volcanoes are one of the visible signs of the presence of oil and gas reserves hidden deep beneath land and sea in the Caspian region. Gas seeps are a related phenomenon and occur when a pocket, filled largely methane gas under the ground, finds a passage to the surface.

One such famous gas seep is Yanardagh (Fire Mountain) on the Absheron Peninsula where a continuous fire burns along a hillside. People often go there to see these dancing flames which never get extinguished and enjoy a cup of tea at the nearby café. It's a fascinating phenomenon to watch, especially at dusk. It's easy to understand how such eternal fires, fueled from the earth itself, became objects of worship.

The appearance of the Zoroastrians in Azerbaijan almost 2,000 years ago is closely connected with these geological phenomena, and, according to one theory, the name "Azerbaijan" itself was derived from the word for "fire" in Persian. The cult of fire worship was paramount throughout the history of pre-Islam in this region.

What are Mud Volcanoes?

Updated: Sep 28, 2021 06:48 GMT
A hill created by a mud volcano in Aghjakand village of Kalbajar region, photo 1936. Kalbajar has been under Armenian occupation since 1992. (Photo: Azerbaijan National Photo Archives)
A hill created by a mud volcano in Aghjakand village of Kalbajar region, photo 1936. Kalbajar has been under Armenian occupation since 1992. (Photo: Azerbaijan National Photo Archives)
Map of major mud volcanoes near Baku at the shore of the Caspian Sea
Map of major mud volcanoes near Baku at the shore of the Caspian Sea
Mud volcanoes are essentially channels for releasing pressurized gas and mineral water, sometimes with traces of oil, together with associated mud from great depths (8­12km) and depositing them on the surface of the earth where they form mounds ranging from 5 to 500m high. In both appearance and behavior, they outwardly resemble a magmatic volcano. The explosive release of pent-up gases combined with the burning of hydrocarbon gases adds to this similarity. But, unlike their magmatic cousins, which carry molten rock or larva or enormous heat to the surface, mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan are at ambient temperature and may even be cool.

Volcanoes are characterized by a constant activity of domes, gryphons (cones) and salses (pools). Some are dry in nature; others, wet. Normally they don't form distinctive volcano shapes as magmatic volcanoes do. Rather, they just flow down into the surrounding plains. They often peak at about 10­20 m but can spread across a surface of several kilometers. Among the largest mud volcanoes in the world are Boyuk Khanizadagh and Turaghai. Both are located in Azerbaijan.
Example of mud volcanic activity - pools and mudflows. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Example of mud volcanic activity - pools and mudflows. (Photo: Ronnie Gallagher)
Because of the softness of the rock, mud volcanoes on a geological timescale are considered to be rather ephemeral. The mud or breccia quickly erodes with wind and rain into systems of gulleys and ridges fanning out from the crater margins. Indeed a tell-tale sign of a mud volcano is its deeply grooved and often very attractive flanks. Mud volcanoes in the sea, of course, erode quickly with wave action.

Mud volcanoes are often created at points of weakness in the Earth's crust, along fault lines. They are associated with geologically young sedimentary deposits and the presence of organic gas from hydrocarbon deposits. Worldwide there are some 700 known mud volcanoes. About 300 of them exist in Eastern region of Azerbaijan and in the Caspian Sea.

While there is some dispute about the origins of mud volcanoes, geologists generally agree on some of the aspects of the formation and activities. Eruptions can occur when mud and sand are squeezed upwards by seismic forces. Here gravitational forces and tidal action appear to play a role. The sudden release and upward expansion of dissolved gases may also play a key role.

The total annual volume of gas emitted by all the volcanoes in Azerbaijan is estimated at 20 million square meters per year however, the greatest volume of gas is released when major eruptions occur such as the Turaghayi volcano in 1946. Based upon the height of its flames and its duration which lasted several hours, an estimated 500 million cubic meters of gas were released.
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