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(photo credit: Mark Tingay, University of Adelaide)

New Study: Earthquake not to blame for Sidoarjo mud volcano


[Image : Lapindo Brantas]
[Image : Lapindo Brantas]
JAKARTA ( – The debate over the cause of Lapindo mud volcano disaster in Sidoarjo, Wast Java seems to resurface after a new study revealed that the cause of the mud volcano was man-made.

New research led by the University of Adelaide hopes to close the debate on whether the major mud volcano disaster was triggered by an earthquake or had man-made origins.

A mud volcano suddenly opened up in the city of Sidoarjo in East Java, Indonesia, in May 2006, while Lapindo, an affiliated company of Bakrie Group, was conducting drilling activities. Initially, the public believed that the mud-volcano was caused by the drilling. Lapindo was later working hard and launched massive campaign to convince the government and the public that the mud flow was due to an earthquake in Central Java, which occurred earlier.

The Lapindo mud volcano later stirred political controversy when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power. Initially, Yudhyono pressured Bakrie group to shoulder the cost of the impact of the mud flow. In a political turnaround, the government then agreed to cover portion of the Lapindo costs, with other portion covered by the Bakire group.

Former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati strongly opposed the plan to allocate State Budget funds to cover the Lapindo mudflow costs, which later cost her position as Finance Minister.

Nine years later the eruption continues – having buried more than 6.5km2 of the city in up to 40m of mud and displacing almost 40,000 people. Costs of the disaster are estimated at over US$2.7 billion.

Results of new research published in late June in correspondence in the journal Nature Geoscience directly address the ongoing controversy over the cause of the disaster, says lead author Dr Mark Tingay, Adjunct Associate Professor with the University of Adelaide’sAustralian School of Petroleum.

“There has been intense debate over the cause of the mud volcano ever since it erupted,” Adjunct Associate Professor Tingay says in a statement.

“Some researchers argue that the volcano was man-made and resulted from a drilling accident (a blowout) in a nearby gas well. Others have argued that it was a natural event that was remotely triggered by a large earthquake that occurred 250km away and two days previously. There has been no scientific consensus about this, and it’s a very hot topic politically in Indonesia.

“Our new research essentially disproves all existing earthquake-triggering models and, in my opinion, puts the matter to rest,” he says.

The study by Adjunct Associate Professor Tingay and colleagues in the US (Portland University; University of California, Berkeley) and UK (Newcastle University) is the first to use actual physical data collected in the days before and after the earthquake, rather than models and comparisons.

“The earthquake-trigger theory proposes that seismic shaking induced liquefaction of a clay layer at the disaster location. Clay liquefaction is always associated with extensive gas release, and it is this large gas release that has been argued to have helped the mud flow upwards and erupt on the surface. However, we examined precise and continuous subsurface gas measurements from the adjacent well and show that there was no gas release following the earthquake,” Adjunct Associate Professor Tingay says.

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

“We also use gas signatures from different rocks and the mud eruption itself to ‘fingerprint’ the initial source of erupting fluids. We demonstrate that erupting fluids were initially sourced from a deep formation, which is only predicted to occur in the drilling-trigger hypothesis. Taken together, our data strongly supports a man-made trigger. We hope this closes the debate on whether an earthquake caused this unique disaster,” he says. (*)


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