Azerbaijan’s Rare Geologic Prize: Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan

Think about a volcanic event and one might envision the fiery red lava spewing from a Hawaiian eruption at Kilauea or a Strombolian hotspot like Mr. Etna in Sicily; or perhaps even a more massive pyroclastic flow that devastated the northern flank of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980 or lopped almost a thousand feet off Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

But volcanic activity emerges on the surface of the Earth’s crust in a variety of forms that don’t necessarily make the front page news, and which often look more similar to a 7th grade science project—such as the mud volcanoes that lie within Azerbaijan, a Central Asian nation that lies near the heart of the Caucasus. Known for its status as an oil-producing nation, Azerbaijan put itself on the map in 2012 when it played surprising host to the 2012 Eurovision contest.

However, it’s country’s remarkable cultural history and natural beauty that are attracting the eyes of intrepid travelers who want to be among the vanguard of explorers to an often forgotten region of the world.

What Exactly is a Mud Volcano?

Formed by liquids and gases found in shallow pockets or vents just below the earth’s surface, mud volcanoes, or mud domes, are simply geologic formations in which hot water mixes with surface deposits such as loess or ground soil.

Mud Volcano
Photo by peretzp – Creative commons

Mud volcanoes are commonly associated with deposits of hydrocarbons such as oil, natural gas, and methane. In fact, over 85% of the gas released from mud volcanoes is methane, followed by carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Unlike the intense heat we associate with other eruptions known as igneous volcanoes, these mud structures emit slurry that is actually cool—sometimes only degrees warmer than the ambient surface temperature.

Why Are Azerbaijan’s Mud Volcanoes Unique?

Gobustan, a region in Azerbaijan that sits near the Caspian Sea, is home to between 300 and 400 different mud volcanoes, which make up approximately half of the world’s total. Needless to say, Azerbaijan holds the market on mud volcano activity. As a result, the country has gently pushed tourism to this area (mainly because of these geologic sites, but for other reasons we’ll explain below) with visitors observing these quiet, bubbling pools of mud by the carload.

Visitors to these volcanoes can also try and take advantage of the alleged mud’s therapeutic properties. As it oozes from the earth, the mud can form pools in which individuals can immerse themselves in, much like a mudbath you might find at a local spa. The relative calm of these pools, along with the comfortable temperature of the mud, make the area a veritable natural paradise for people seeking natural healing properties, or perhaps for those who just want to take a relaxing dip in the mud.

Of course, this isn’t entirely always the case. In 2001, a mud volcano a mere 9 miles from the Azerbaijan capital of Baku started to erupt violently, ejecting flames and spewing gas up to 50 feet in the air, and depositing tons of mud throughout the area. Geologists believe these mud explosions occur once every 20 years or so—allowing visitors to hedge their bets if they feel like they want to explore the area up-close.

Is There More to Azerbaijan than Just Cool Vents of Mud?

Aside from the region’s unique geologic activity, Gobustan is even more well known for thousands of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, depicting ancient scenes of the area’s rich culture, some of which date back over 10,000 years. The carvings offer insight into the lives of a thriving population in vast scenes that show rituals, battles, trade and commerce, astronomy, and the daily lives of a population that has since disappeared.

Both the volcanoes and the petroglyphs are protected by the Azeri government within the Gobustan National Park, which lies close to the western side of the Caspian Sea and approximately 40 miles from the Azerbaijan capital, Baku. Because of its historical and nature value, Gobustan National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Photo Credit , by Peretzp – Creative Commons