If you stare at this rather unattractive picture at first you may not quite understand what you’re looking at–whether these obviously man-made structures are shipwrecks, derelict vehicles or something else. Actually they are oil drilling platforms just offshore in the Caspian Sea, just off the north coast of Pirallahi Island in the republic of Azerbaijan, formerly in the USSR. This is not the most up-to-date photo–as you can see I toggled the historic views tool in Google Earth–but this particular shot is the clearest, and in which you can see both the outlines of the oil rigs and the shallowness of the water. The Caspian Sea is a flat, shallow salty lake in the middle of Asia. Oil was first discovered here in the late 19th century, and there’s been some form of petroleum extraction going on in this area ever since.
Actually the Caspian oil area–often called simply Baku, or the “Baku oil fields,” after the largest city in the area–is pretty important in history. This was the prize toward which Hitler was lunging in his military campaign that began in August 1942 and ended badly (for him) at Stalingrad several months later. The vagaries of Caspian oil, and how (or whether) it reaches the world market, have played significant roles in the economic history of Russia during the late imperial and Soviet periods.
Now that climate change is such a problem worldwide, the heyday of this kind of activity may soon be over. Scientists estimate that, in order to stop the worst effects of climate change, we’re going to have to leave 75% of the fossil fuels we currently know about in the ground. In a couple of decades these oil derricks may be rusting abandoned hulks. Indeed much of the world may be littered with the twisted wreckage of our disastrous experiment with fossil fuels–assuming we have the collective wisdom to bring that experiment to a rapid end.