Fires on open water: What explains the fires in Mexico and Azerbaijan?

Last weekend, images of a firestorm in the Gulf of Mexico went viral on the Internet. It was no accident: the videos, taken from helicopters, are worthy of an apocalyptic movie.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Yesterday, July 4, there was another fire on the high seas, this time in the Caspian Sea, near Azerbaijan. The images were not taken from a privileged angle like those of the Gulf of Mexico, but they are no less amazing because of it.

The fires occurred in just two days, and the pictures made many people question whether the end of the world is near. As apocalyptic as it sounds, there are explanations for the fires on the high seas – even if they are still uncertain.

 

GULF OF MEXICO

On Friday morning (2), a fire broke out on the ocean near a drilling platform owned by Pemex, the state-owned oil company in Mexico. In the video shown below, you can see boats on the scene trying to control the fire with nitrogen spray.

According to a statement from the company, the cause of the fire was a gas leak in a pipeline. The valves connected to the pipeline have already been closed, and it took 5 hours to extinguish the fire. The causes of the accident and the impact on the surrounding area are not yet clear.

Ángel Carrizales, safety chief of Asea (Mexico’s Agency for Safety, Energy, and Environment), said on Twitter that the Pemex incident did not cause oil to spill into the sea. However, he did not explain what was burning on the surface of the water.

Environmental groups pointed to the fire as an example of the risks that oil facilities and their poor maintenance pose to the environment and human safety. Just remember the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

 

CASPIAN SEA

On Sunday night (July 4th), a large explosion and fire occurred near an oil platform in the Caspian Sea. The incident occurred south of the coast of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and flames could be seen throughout the region.

At first, residents thought it was an explosion on an oil platform or a ship. But the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) said there was none, and ships were not affected by the explosion.

What appears to have caused the large column of fire on the inland sea is the eruption of a mud volcano – according to Gurban Yetirmishli, director of the country’s seismological service. But what is a mud volcano?

Azerbaijan is known to have many of them. They are cone-shaped structures that form when mud is ejected from the seafloor. This happens due to factors such as bottom sedimentation, gas pressure, and seismic activity.

When a mud volcano erupts, it releases a large amount of methane (a flammable gas) and, to a lesser extent, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and helium. Water vapor and mud are also released – so the eruptions keep rebuilding the volcanic cone.

According to Mark Tingay, an expert on mud volcanoes and professor at the University of Adelaide (Australia), the explosion site matches a mud volcano called Makarov Bank. In 1958, this volcano erupted and produced a column of fire 500 meters high and 150 meters wide.

The phenomenon is not well understood by scientists, but it is believed that mud volcanoes are ignited by colliding rocks that produce sparks during the eruption. According to this theory, contact of the sparks with flammable gases would cause a fire.

A SOCAR spokesman said that a ship with experts had been sent to the scene to investigate the incident and that the public would be informed as soon as they obtained more information.

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