Changbaishan/Baekdu Update

This is the update promised in the post on Changbaishan/Baekdu’s Millennium Eruption.


The world was well aware of the nuclear test proximity to Changbaishan/Baekdu Volcano, even if I wasn’t.

First the good news:

  • If you’re like me, your first thought was, “nuclear volcano eruption.” That possibility is so far-fetched in real life, it appears, that scientists don’t even consider it. After all, the bombs are 60-70 miles away, not going down into the magma chamber.
  • Back in May 2017, before the latest (and biggest) test in September, a study found none of the three previous North Korean nuclear tests triggered microseismic activity at Changbaishan/Baekdu, while 3 out of 26 distant quakes between 2000 and 2016 did. Apparently the difference is that the distant quakes send the right kind of seismic waves – long-period waves- to activate this minor activity.
  • Volcanologists are on this. They held a two-day international conference in September 2017 to discuss it. I couldn’t find any reports (in English anyway) about it, but that simply means that research is ongoing.

A May 2017 report by CNN discusses the likelihood of a nuclear test triggering an eruption in light of the 2006, 2009, and 2013 events.

Quoted experts basically say that too little is known, both generally in volcanology and specifically about this volcano, for any definite idea of whether there is a risk, and if so, how high it might be.

An article at the Los Angeles Times website, posted after the September 2017 test, updates the situation but concentrates more on environmental hazards at the testing site.

This uncertainty is to be expected. It’s difficult for westerners to get access to data, as outlined in today’s post. But according to a Rand analyst quoted by CNN, the Chinese have been worried about the nuclear-volcano possibility for years, and they do have access to roughly half of Changbaishan/Baekdu.

In an online Global Times article published shortly after the 2017 test, Xu Jiandong at the China Earthquake Adminstration is quoted as saying that the volcano is currently quiet, according to 12 observation station that are presently sending in real-time data. (Its last period of unrest is described in today’s post here.)

Xu notes that the September test caused an M6 earthquake and states, “if a more powerful nuclear test is conducted when the volcano is unstable, it would be dangerous.”

Xu also says that an M7 blast might cause problems. Perhaps that is based on this study.

Modeling such a thing is difficult, but those researchers tried it and found, at least in that particular study, that waves from an M7 event could dynamically stress the magma chamber.

In response to the conference recommendations that China and both Koreas build a joint research center to forecast eruptions of Changbaishan/Baekdu, Xu said that research might be possible, but not joint monitoring.

And that apparently is where things stand today, but as mentioned above, volcanologists are hard at work on this now.

And remember, their major concern is about the effects of a big eruption, not “nuclear lava”–a connection between underground radioactivity and the magma chamber doesn’t seem to be an issue here. Potential surface leaks from the testing site, as discussed by the LA Times, are much more likely sources of radioactive contamination.

The big question for me is, how big is the magma chamber and how much of the magma is in a state that could be erupted?

I’m guessing that’s what the scientists are trying to find out.

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