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Documentary film on mud volcano launches in Arizona

November 18, 2009

The School of Earth and Space Exploration hosted a symposium "Living with the Planet" Nov. 13 that featured the premiere screening of the documentary film "Mud Max: Investigative Documentary - Sidoardjo Mud Volcano Disaster."

The event included a panel discussion with earth scientists from leading European and American institutions, which concluded that the cause of the Sidoardjo mud volcano disaster (also known as LUSI) is still inconclusive.

No disaster in recent history has received as much attention nor created as much controversy as that of LUSI, the world's fastest growing mud volcano in Indonesia that suddenly erupted on May 29, 2006. Dubbed LUSI as a compendium of the Indonesian word for mud (lumpur) and the East Java town near which LUSI was born (Sidoarjo), the phenomenon has been a unique disaster. The hot mud, which first began spewing from the earth following a powerful earthquake and nearby exploration drilling, is still pouring forth at the rate of up to 150,000 cubic meters per day. Some 40,000 residents living near the eruption have lost their homes, belongings and, in some cases livelihoods and lives. Whole villages have been inundated with mud, infrastructures destroyed and reputations ruined.

International experts have been divided over the cause of the mud eruption. The early point of views favored the theory that the nearby drilling activity may have triggered the eruption, but others, after having time for considerable scientific investigation, support the idea that seismic activity linked to an earthquake just two days before the mud eruption began could have been the likely cause.

While conducting research in Indonesia, Amanda Clarke, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was interviewed by the film crew creating the documentary film ‘Mud Max.' The project was produced over a 27-month period by the British company Immodicus in conjunction with the School of Earth and Space Exploration and involved researchers, geologists, drilling experts and scientists whom explore the facts of the tragic, on-going disaster including the scientific, economic, humanitarian and political issues that have made LUSI the talk of the geophysical world. The film aims to highlight the facts and views from every side, but leaves the decision to the viewer as to what caused the mud volcano eruption.

Rather than pointing fingers and dwelling on the causes of the eruption, the Living with the Planet panelists emphasized the importance of seeking out solutions and using LUSI to learn from.

Panel member Jonathan Fink, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of the Center for Sustainability Science Applications, pointed out that volcanology is a relatively young science that requires observations of active eruptions to advance knowledge.

"Mud volcanism of the scale of LUSI has rarely if ever been seen before, so volcanologists may not be able to answer all of the questions that policy makers and the public want to know," explains Fink. "Each eruption teaches us something new, so LUSI may help scientists interpret future mud events."

Adriano Mazzini, a researcher at the Physics of Geological Processes Centre of Excellence (University of Oslo), whose research has focused on mud volcanoes, has conducted extensive research on LUSI during his three visits.

"Our results support a scenario where the strike-slip movement of the Watukosek fault triggered the Lusi eruption and synchronous seep activity witnessed at other mud volcanoes along the same fault," says Mazzini. "The possibility that drilling contributed to trigger the eruption cannot be excluded. However, so far, no univocal data support the drilling hypothesis, and a blow-out scenario can neither explain the dramatic changes that affected the plumbing system of numerous seep systems on Java after the May 27 earthquake."

Preparing for and reacting quickly to natural disasters such as LUSI requires both deep knowledge of the broader Earth system context and careful monitoring of biological, chemical, and physical processes.

"The development of effective environmental monitoring systems has not progressed very far as yet, and Indonesia - with its complex geology and high risk of natural hazards - would be an excellent place to develop and test state-of-the-art monitoring technologies," says Kip Hodges, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. "The School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU is establishing itself as one of the premier centers for such technology development. We are very excited to explore opportunities to work with our friends in Indonesia to develop world-class hazard monitoring systems for deployment in their country."

The school sees an important aspect of such collaboration as being a cooperative educational program that would provide opportunities for bright young Indonesian students to receive training at ASU in science and engineering, such that they can return to Indonesia and play leadership roles in developing a strong intellectual foundation for Indonesia in Earth system science and engineering.    

According to Clarke and other panel members, the region around LUSI is very complex geologically, making prediction of future mud activity difficult at best.

"Real-time and/or continuous monitoring of several key geophysical, geochemical and volcanological parameters will provide data to help understand the phenomenon," she says. "This type of campaign, coupled with context gained from detailed study of the area's geologic past, may help scientists predict LUSI's future."