Indonesian Mud Volcano Collapsing

A mud volcano on the Indonesian island of Java is collapsing, swallowing up more than 30,000 homes so far. Scientists blame a gas company for causing the eruption of sludge two years ago. Geologist Richard Davies explains the volcano's collapse with Alex Chadwick.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Lucy is now two years old. An occasion absolutely no one is celebrating. Lucy is a mud volcano on the island of Java, the most populous island in Indonesia. It's on the eastern tip of the island. It's already swallowed the homes of more than 30,000 people. Scientists and displaced Indonesians blame a gas company for causing the eruption of sludge two years ago. Richard Davies is a geologist with Durham University in England. He's been tracking this volcano since it first appeared. Richard Davies, what usually causes a mud volcano? And how is this one different?

Professor RICHARD DAVIES (Geologist, Durham University): They are normally caused by natural processes. Under the ground you have something called geological pressure and this pressure, sometimes, can be abnormally high. And so where it reaches abnormally high levels, it can force fluids to the surface. Normally through natural fractures and breaks in the rocks. There are thousands of mud volcanoes on the earth. What makes this mud volcano very different is that this one was almost certainly triggered by drilling a gas exploration well.

CHADWICK: This gas well was being drilled by a company that belongs to the richest man in Indonesia. He's connected to the government. There's a lot of back and forth on this. A local court has said that it thinks it was a natural disaster.

Prof. DAVIES: Well, yeah, there was an earthquake on the 27th of May, two days before the start of the mud volcano on the 29th of May, 2006. Almost exactly two years ago. This earthquake has been looked at, in detail, by an American scientist, Michael Magner and he decided that the earthquake is too small and too far away to have had any influence on the triggering this mud volcano. My part in the research has been to look at the drilling data and in fact we have very clear indications that while they were drilling the well, they basically had a series of operational events, which led to the subsurface blowout. Which means that the fluid within the well leaked out towards the surface and that kicked off the process in which Lucy was born.

CHADWICK: Well, this is the world's largest mud volcano. Now, how much bigger might it get? And is there anything that can be done to plug the thing up?

Prof. DAVIES: It's not actually the largest. The largest are out in Azerbaijan, but those mud volcanoes are formed over tens of thousands - possibly millions of years. It is the fastest growing. So it's an incredible fast growing mud volcano that is in its infancy. It's expanded to about seven square kilometers and it's actually being penned in by series of dams, which have been built, in order to stop the impact on the local population.

CHADWICK: You've been to the sight. You've looked at this mud volcano?

Prof. DAVIES: Yes.

CHADWICK: From the press accounts I read, it's - well it doesn't smell very good?

Prof. DAVIES: Well, initially, one of the problems was the gas that erupted with the volcano had hydrogen sulfide gas in it, which is - has a smell of rotten eggs. It's a sight to behold, I mean, reading through the various literature and looking at pictures does not prepare you for seeing this thing. It has a crater in the middle of it, a vent, which is 50 meters wide with mud and gas and steam coming out of it.

CHADWICK: Is the land in danger of collapsing if this water runs out? I mean what is going to happen there? Geologically?

Prof. DAVIES: It is collapsing and so we've recently published a paper - we're working with Indonesians. They have taken accurate GPS measurements, which can measure a fraction of a centimeter of downward movement. And they have also used satellite images to see whether the land has gone up or gone down. It is of course going down. The weight of the mud, and because you are taking mud and fluid from underneath the ground, is causing the area to subside. The maximum rate, if you like, are four centimeters a day. That equates to something like 14 meters a year and if you multiply it by ten years, you can quickly extrapolate the worst-case scenario. And so my point is you really have to look at this new data because it shows that the area will eventually be impacted by the mud volcano, it's not just the area covered by mud.

CHADWICK: Richard Davies, professor of Geology at Durham University in the United Kingdom on the great mud volcano, Lucy, on the island of Java in Indonesia. Richard Davies, thank you.

Mr. DAVIES: Thank you very much.

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