The Millennium Eruption of Baekdu/Changbaishan Volcano

Not this millennium – the last one. More precisely, 969 A.D., give or take 20 years.

Europe was moving into the High Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Ghana in Africa was enjoying its golden age, and the Maori were settling the land now known as New Zealand, but Y1K really came in with a bang for those living around the Sea of Japan.

It was not an effusive eruption. The top kilometer of an estimated 3500-meter-high volcanic structure was blown away and massive ash flows covered the land.

Around this volcano are dramatic-looking gray spires of rock lining ravines. Those are the eroded remains of massive pyroclastic flows that Changbaishan/Baekdu volcano unleashed during one of Earth’s biggest explosive eruptions since the end of the last ice age.

The conversion of Plymouth, Monserrat, into a modern Pompeii was small in comparison.  (Image:  Thorstein Boeckel)
The recent conversion of Plymouth, Monserrat, into a modern Pompeii was tiny by comparison. (Image: Thorstein Boeckel)

We moderns have no frame of reference for such a thing.

In its infamous 1883 eruption, Krakatau/Krakatoa blew out over 20 cubic km of material – Baitoushan (another name for today’s volcano) erupted 150 cubic km in the VEI 7 Millennium Eruption.

Some of that ash covered the Korean Peninsula in a layer up to 3.2 feet (1 m) thick. The ash also traveled across the Japan Sea to drop a respectably thick layer on southern Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, over 500 miles away.

Baekdu/Changbaishan has had a few more eruptions since then, the last in 1903, but they were much smaller ones.

Of course, the question on everybody’s mind is if and when another big one might happen.

No one has a clue as to the answer.

In geology, and particularly in volcanology, knowing what a volcano has done in the past is key to understanding its most likely threats to us here and now.

Unfortunately, people can’t even agree on Baitoushan/Changbaishan/Baekdu’s proper name, let alone adequately catalog its geologic record.

A few other bodies of water in Asia share its name, but this 3 x 2-mile-wide crater lake that gives rise to three major rivers is the Heaven Lake that everyone there knows and loves. (Image: Wang65)

Heaven and Earth

Today the Lake of Heaven fills a crater caldera at this complex volcano right on the border between China and North Korea.

The two countries have been arguing about the territorial line here for centuries. Currently [as of 2014], it runs through the middle of Heaven Lake, but because of the volcano’s shape, somewhat more of the edifice is in North Korea than in China, making it off limits to most of the world’s geoscientists (until recently).

This is what a visit to the lake can look like from the Chinese side, where the volcano gets more visitors per year than Mount Fuji does in Japan, and from the North Korean side, where foreign tourists are allowed, with precautions.

Propaganda aside, Koreans (North and South) really do love this place. They, as well as China’s Manchu people, consider Baekdu/Changbaishan and its associated peaks their ancestral home.

The spiritual/psychological significance of Baitoushan today is difficult for this Westerner to comprehend.

Crater Lake, in North America, formed in a similar eruption many millennia ago and is a popular tourist site now, but it’s not as important to us as Changbaishan/Baekdu is to the Chinese and Koreans.

Here is a South Korean view:

The North Koreans have put the image of Paektu (their version of Baekdu) on the national emblem.

This is the North Korean national emblem with a long shot of the volcano from a Chinese documentary so you can see the profile.  Not taking sides - please do not yell at me.
This is the North Korean national emblem with a long shot of the volcano from a Chinese documentary so you can see the profile. Not taking sides – please don’t yell at me.

As well, the North Koreans compose stirring music in Baekdu’s honor and tend to tell some whoppers about the volcano and their nation (for example, the ice on Tianchi Lake reportedly broke open when Kim Jong Il, who literally autographed the mountain, died in December 2011).

For the Chinese, the Changbai Mountains that surround the volcano are the mythical birthplace of the founders of the Qing Dynasty, so there’s a lot of emotion invested in the volcano on that side of the border, too.

In addition, Changbaishan ginseng is a prized commodity. Logging is also profitable on the heavily forested slopes, and the Chinese have managed to establish a nature preserve there as well as a major tourist resort,

South Koreans are concerned that all this is a Chinese attempt to take the entire mountain).

Here is the Chinese view, presumably waxing poetic about Changbaishan’s beauty, though I don’t understand a word of it. There is nice camerawork, though.

However, be aware, that the Millennium Eruption wasn’t the Hawaiian-style event portrayed here. Far from it!

Myth and Reality

Why are so many ancestral legends focused on this place, spawning the nationalism, politics and emotionalism that complicate humanity’s attempts to deal with this huge hazard?

The Three Kingdoms of Korea back in the day.
The Three Kingdoms of Korea back in the day.

This is just a guess, but perhaps the Millennium Eruption “reset the clock” for the people living in that region. The survivors then rebuilt their lives and societies into what developed into today’s Korea and Manchuria–the former Three Kingdoms of Korea.

Those survivors are now the honored ancestors of the Korean and Manchu people, and today the volcano that once wrought such havoc is now worshiped (either directly or secondarily through culture and politics). That’s just an outsider’s guess to explain the strong attachment many have to this volcano.

Though there is no mention of this in the Wikipedia articles (I’m not an Asian history scholar) on the Three Kingdoms of Korea, the Balhae Empire, and the Goryeo-Khitan war, Yatsuzaka et al, (see source list below) do mention a link between the eruption and the empire’s collapse.

All the names of this volcano come from its white ash, known as the Baitoushan-Tomakomai tephra.
All the names of this volcano come from its white ash, which scientists call the Baitoushan-Tomakomai tephra.

Volcano Diplomacy

In the late 1990s and first decade of the 20th century, Changbaishan/Baekdu volcano showed signs of awakening.

After episodes of increased seismicity and swelling between 2002 and 2006, the volcano quieted down, but clearly magma had moved under the mountain and closer monitoring was needed.

The Chinese side of the volcano was fairly easy to access. It took some diplomacy, but in 2011 the two Koreas reached an agreement to do joint research on the North Korean side.

In 2013, geologists James Hammond, Imperial College London, and Clive Oppenheimer, University of Cambridge, began a collaborative effort with North Korean scientists to install and seismometers there.

Dr. Hammond told the BBC:

This project is not about monitoring the volcano or predicting when the eruption will happen, but is about understanding what happened during the millennium eruption and also looking at what its state is now, using geophysical techniques. This will help us understand what is driving the volcano.

That’s important. While there is a lot of plate tectonic activity going on in places like Japan, Baekdu/Changbaishan is an intraplate volcano and therefore less well understood.

Well, as of today [2014], as far as I know, Changbaishan/Baekdu’s recent spurt of a bit of unrest has settled down and scientists are waiting for the North Koreans to take the seismograms from the equipment on the volcano’s flanks and mail them to the UK.

North Korea does not have the Internet.

Well…it’s a start.

Update, April 20, 2016:  Here is a link to the scientific paper, “Evidence for partial melt in the crust beneath Mt. Paektu (Changbaishan), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and China.”

As I understand it, this is the first North-Korea-based study of the Earth’s crust underneath this volcano.  It has shown that the crustal structure there is much more complex than at a distance because of the volcano’s 3.5-million-year history of eruptions.

The researchers believe that they have identified a roughly 20-kilometer-wide (roughly 12-1/2 miles) area of partial melt that is probably the source for the volcano’s historic eruptions as well as the 2002-2005 period of unrest, which probably was an episode of magma chamber recharge.

There are no warnings issued.  It’s just a little look at normal volcanic processes here that the world has never been able to see before.

I’m not a scientist, but I think this was an enormously successful research project, accomplished with just the very basic methods and resources. That’s beautifully simple science.

It’s also very nice that a big volcano can make the news without erupting.

Here’s hoping that the volcanologists will get their wish for more research and that Paektu can be studied and monitored on its North Korean side as intensively as it is on the Chinese side.

Edited June 7, 2020

Featured image: NASA

Sources (I don’t usually list sources, but it was either this or have pretty much a solid expanse of blue links up above [2018 update – This was the post that got me into the much better habit of always including sources in a post!]):

Baekdu, Korean Wikipedia article (Google translated into English)

Paektu Mountain, Wikipedia.

Changbaishan, Global Volcanism Program.

Tianchi, Wikipedia.

Top Ten Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

Timeline 900-1000, Carson-Newman University.

14C Wiggle-Matching of the B-TM Tephra, Baitioushan Volcano, China/North Korea (PDF), Yatsuzuka et al., 2010.

Changbai Mountains, Wikipedia.

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