Popocatepetl is Putting on a Show

If we once realize all this earth as it is, we should find ourselves in a land of miracles: we shall discover a new planet at the moment that we discover our own.
— G. K. Chesterton, in “In Defence of Planets”

Starting on the afternoon of the 20th, this volcano–around which some 25 million people live, most of them in Mexico City and Puebla State–began showing strong tremor. Then activity picked up, but not to catastrophic levels, fortunately.

Popo has been erupting now for 24 years and I’ve been live-blogging it here since a little earlier this year. (You can also click on the “Popocatepetl” tab at the top of this page.)

Tonight, because of the bright moonlight, I suppose, they switched the webcam to natural color and I grabbed the screenshot above.

Science and art are just two sides of the same planet.

These videos are challenging to embed, but here it is; let’s give it a try.

Update, November 21, 2018, 1:05 p.m., Pacific: To complete the customary planetary daily circle, just wanted to include this time-lapse video shared by CENAPRED in this morning’s update (you can find these here, in English).

Goood morning, Popocatepetl!:

Featured image: Webcams de Mexico


Volcanoes. In France.

Here is the sort of travel video you might expect about France–but somehow a volcano manages to intrude itself (pun intended) into the background. And that round lake is a maar.

As a matter of fact, France has a whole field of volcanoes, with the last activity there around 6,000 years ago, per the Global Volcanism Program.

It also has a volcano park: Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Park. Here’s a lovely video by a local resident who hiked in it.

More information
Chaîne des Puys Global Volcanism Page

Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Park UNESCO page.

Livestream of Kilauea’s Summit Crater

The lava fountains and human drama in Hawaii’s Lower Puna District are getting all the headlines, but geologists know there is also drama ongoing at the summit, where the volcano’s crater seems to have been slowly collapsing since the lava lake drained.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory staff were forced to move farther away from the summit area because the many earthquakes there were damaging the building. Now, they have set up a livestream, and it’s fascinating to watch. Basically, the crater walls are slowly crumbling inward, and there is a pile of rocks at the bottom that may be suppressing the explosions — after a period of suppression, of course, there will likely be a big steam blast to relieve pressure, But no one knows if or when that will happen, or what will happen next.

Anyway, here’s the livestream:

For comparison, here’s a video they recorded in March to mark the ten-year anniversary of the lava lake first appearing in the summit crater. Where he’s standing has already collapsed now.

Here is a drone overlight of Halemaumau they did on May 31st. As you can see, the vent where the lava lake used to be has expanded to almost fill the whole crater. And there’s the rock pile down at the bottom, probably supressing, to some extent, the explosions.

And, about an hour ago, the USGS posted this:


Featured image: USGS. Those curved lines on the left is where the visitor’s parking lot used to be.

Guest Videos: Monitoring Volcanoes With Cosmic Rays

You might have heard that they found another chamber in the Great Pyramid recently. Archaeologists and physicists did this by using muons–a type of subatomic particle–to see inside the rock.

Here’s how they did it:

There is another way muon tomography is helping scientists keep people safe: by looking through volcanoes.

This is cutting edge stuff, and work still continues at Soufrière Guadeloupe, where at least five working telescopes were in place in February 2017.

Unfortunately, the last online bulletin of the volcano observatory at Guadeloupe (English translation of website here) is from 2014.

I hope the Great Pyramid discovery may encourage more volcanologists around the world to check out the technique!

Guest Videos: Nyiragongo’s Lava Lake

Molten rock at Kilauea’s summit has disappeared from view, but the world’s largest lava lake is still bubbling away in the crater of Africa’s Nyiragongo Volcano.

The tricky part is getting down there to check it out.

It isn’t easy for tourists to approach Nyiragongo’s summit, either.

But the fascination of that incandescent glow is intense.

More information:

Smithsonian Global Volcanism page


OSU article on “The Most Dangerous Volcano in the World” (videos of Hawaiian lava flows aren’t from 2018)

Photovolcanica: Nyiragongo

If Twitter Was Around When Mount St. Helens Blew

It’s wonderful (from a distance) to follow the ongoing eruption at Kilauea via the Web. Twitter is especially helpful.

I’ve been wondering what the 1980 reawakening and eruption of Mount St. Helens would have been like on Twitter. Here are some tweets I’ve found from volcanologists and other interested people who have not forgotten May 18, 1980, as well as a movie from the National Archives.

Continue reading

Guest Video: The Secret Lives of “Quiet” Volcanoes

It’s difficult to monitor an underwater volcano like Kick-’em-Jenny and it’s also dangerous when that volcano is restless. This is why scientists use volcanic earthquakes to take the fire mountain’s “pulse” from a relatively safe distance.

Have you ever wondered how volcanologists do that? Here is a whole hour-plus 2013 webinar from IRIS Earthquake Science about it, nerdy but aimed at nonspecialists like us.

As we will see with this weekend’s Sunday Morning Volcano post, there are a lot of quiet but still active volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean. Fortunately, these sleeping trouble-makers are bedecked with seismometers and other monitoring equipment so that volcanologists can give the local residents as much advance warning as possible when the volcano starts to wake up.

    Featured image: Harmonic tremor at Mount St. Helens in March 1980. Source.

Guest Videos: Mount Erebus

We don’t usually think of Antarctica as “fire and ice” country, but it has many volcanoes, including Mount Erebus, which erupts fairly frequently and hosts a major lava lake (shown above from space).

Volcanologists also study the volcano’s gases and ejecta from its explosions.

Mount Erebus Smithsonian GVP page.

More information about research at Mount Erebus. (I can’t find a working link to the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory.)

Featured image: Mount Erebus. Source.

The Millennium Eruption of Baekdu/Changbaishan Volcano

While I’m working on the book, I repost things occasionally from my other blogs for your enjoyment. Was doing so today with a 2014 post on Korea’s Baekdu Volcano, also known as Changbaishan and other names, when I learned that China had closed part of the national preserve around this mountain out of concerns for possible hazards from North Korea’s nuclear test, about 70 miles away. Mind. Blown. I don’t have time to look into this in detail right now but will post an update next week.

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, April 20, 2016, and again on February 7, 2018; see note at top of post. The unedited post was originally published at my Clear Sight blog on March 1, 2014.

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.