Science says drilling is likely the cause of an Indonesian mud volcano disaster

A satellite image of the Lusi mud volcano and the buried city of Sidoarjo in March 2007. IMAGE: Lapindo Brantas

Research led by the University of Adelaide has found that a major mud volcano disaster in Indonesia was probably triggered by man-made drilling and not an earthquake.

A mud volcano suddenly opened up in the city of Sidoarjo in East Java in May 2006. Nine years later the eruption continues, burying more than 6.5 square kilometres of the city in up to 40 metres of mud and displacing almost 40,000 people. Costs are estimated at $US2.7 billion.

Results of research published in the journal Nature Geoscience directly address the ongoing controversy over the cause of the disaster.

“There has been intense debate over the cause of the mud volcano ever since it erupted,” says Mark Tingay, adjunct associate professor with the University of Adelaide’s Australian School of Petroleum.

The earthquake theory proposes that seismic shaking induced liquefaction of a clay layer at the disaster location.

“The rocks showed no response to the earthquake, indicating that the earthquake could not have been responsible for the mud flow disaster,” says Tingay.

“The measurements (of the study) highlight that the onset of underground activity preceding the mud eruption only started when the drilling ‘kick’ occurred, strongly suggesting that the disaster was initiated by a drilling accident.

“Our data strongly supports a man-made trigger. We hope this closes the debate on whether an earthquake caused this unique disaster.”

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