The mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan

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Khursheed Dinshaw (India)

The first time I saw a mud volcano at close range was in Rotorua in New Zealand. I was fascinated – the raw energy of the erupting mud massively appealed to me. Once back home, I read up on mud volcanoes and learnt that, out of the almost 700 present in the world, about 300 of which are located in Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. No wonder scientists call Azerbaijan ‘the region of mud volcanoes (Fig. 1).

These mud volcanoes reach heights of 200 to 500m and temperatures of 1,000 to 1,2000C. They include active and extinct underwater, island-type and oil producing volcanoes. In Azerbaijan, one can find these natural wonders on the Absheron Peninsula, at Gobustan and the Shirvan plain.

Fig. 1. A map of the mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan (© Mark Tingay and Google Earth).

Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the country and booked a tour to Gobustan to experience the famed mud volcanoes, which are locally known as ‘Pilpila’ (Fig. 2). One can drive up to the designated spot in any vehicle, but the last few kilometres necessary to reach the volcanoes is only possible by authorised cars driven by locals who know the landscape like the back of their hand. This is important, because the terrain is barren and there are no marked roads, routes or signposts to get to the mud volcanoes.

Fig. 2. Mud volcanoes are called Pilpila in Ajerbaijan.

My driver was born and brought up in a nearby village, in Gobustan. He revved up the Ladacar, and the guide and I got ready to drive on an off-road adventure. The four-seater Lada can accommodate a maximum of five passengers, if three sit on the back seat. With the windows rolled up to keep out the dust that would be kicked up by the car in motion, we began our drive.

The first few kilometres were a straight, barren stretch. This changed to driving up and down earthy mounds, where all I could see was brown earth and some scattered bushes. After a few minutes, we stopped. As I got down, I noticed that, instead of the brown, muddy earth, I had now stepped onto grey, solidified mud (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Mud volcanoes are referred to as ‘Pilpila’ in Azerbaijan.

My guide advised me not to walk on the dried mud on the edge of the mud volcanoes (Fig. 4), as it could collapse under my weight.

Fig 4. Dried mud on the edge of the mud volcanoes.

However, right in front of me was a mud volcano that had a cone shape (Fig. 5). (In fact, most of the mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan are conical.)

Fig. 5. A cone-shaped mud volcano.

Next to it, on top of a mound, was another mud volcano that would erupt in the next few minutes (Figs. 6, 7 and 8). While we were waiting for the eruption, my guide told me that, in the year 1933, after an oil well was drilled into a mud volcano, almost 20,000 tonnes of oil were obtained in a single day. This volcano is located in Lökbatan, which is a settlement and municipality in Azerbaijan. By 2015, this mud volcano had produced 27 million tonnes of oil. And not just oil, but also natural gas to the tune of one billion cubic meters.

Fig. 6. A mud volcano in Gobustan.
Fig. 7. A further mud volcano.
Fig. 8. And another …

I had read that Prisk Panniyski, who was a fifth century geographer from Rome, wrote about a ‘place where fires emerge from the sea’. The interpretation of modern scientists is that he was describing the mud volcanoes present in the Caspian Sea.

I then spent my remaining time in Azerbaijan driving to the various mud volcanoes of Gobustan and observing them against the contrasting barren landscape (Fig. 9). I saw them erupt not just mud and solid fragments of rock, but also water and gas. As many as 100 minerals can also be present in an eruption.

Fig. 9.The barren landscape of Gobustan.

I got to learn that there are onshore mud volcanoes, along with offshore mud volcanoes. The Baku Archipelago is home to about eight islands that were created by eruptions of mud volcanoes. These include Khara-Zira, Garasu,Sangi-Mugan and Zenbil.

Some advice about visiting the site
Wear a good pair of walking shoes.Carry a hat and sunscreen.Carry your own drinking water.Airlines like Jazeera Airways, which is an airline head-quartered in Kuwait, operates flights to Azerbaijan from multiple locations around the world.There are many tour operators and companies in Azerbaijan that offer trips to the Gobustan mud volcanoes.

All photographs are by Khursheed Dinshaw.

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