Ashkule Vol­ca­noes

— Search­ing for the Most Re­cent Erup­tion

China Scenic - - NATURE - Photo/ Liu Zhiy­ong

There are many vol­ca­noes in China, but very few are clas­si­fied as ac­tive and even fewer have erupted in re­cent his­tory. Some Chi­nese vol­ca­nol­o­gists are firm in their be­lief that there have been no erup­tions in China for the past 100 years. The only chal­lenge to this is a re­port of an erup­tion in 1951 in Ash Vol­cano in Xin­jiang’s Kun­lun Vol­canic Group (also known as the Ashkule Vol­canic Group). In Au­gust 2016, the au­thor took part in a sci­en­tific re­search party trav­el­ling to 5,000 me­ters alti­tude in the wilder­ness of Kun­lun Moun­tains, seek­ing ev­i­dence of what may be China’s most re­cent vol­canic erup­tion.

The Ashkule Vol­ca­noes

Sit­ting at the joint of three fault zones, the Ashkule Vol­canic Group in Xin­jiang is char­ac­ter­ized with in­ten­sive ge­o­logic ac­tiv­ity, cre­at­ing an area that has some of the lim­ited ac­tive vol­ca­noes of China. The one in the photo is the Wu­luke Vol­cano.

The tow­er­ing Kun­lun Moun­tains stretch across the north­ern edge of the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau, where Xin­jiang and Ti­bet meet. The en­vi­ron­ment here is harsh and peo­ple are few, but this is ex­actly what makes Kun­lun such a mag­i­cal place.

In the south­ern edge of the Kun­lun Moun­tains there is a de­pres­sion formed be­tween moun­tain ridges known as Ashkule Basin. It is lo­cated in the con­ver­gence of three fault lines—al­tun Fault, East Kunkun Fault and Kangxiwa Fault. The move­ment of Earth’s crust is in­tense here, and it is one of the most seis­mi­cally and vol­cani­cally ac­tive ar­eas in China. This area is an un­pop­u­lated wilder­ness with a rocky desert stretch­ing in all for di­rec­tions, which hides in its depths Ashkule (also known as Kun­lun) Vol­canic Group, which con­sists of more than ten main vol­ca­noes and dozens of sec­ondary ones.

Ashkule Vol­canic Group is lo­cated on the south­ern edge of Ashkule Basin at alti­tude be­tween 4,700 and 5,600 me­ters, which makes it one of the high­est vol­canic groups in the world. Also, th­ese vol­ca­noes are rel­a­tively young, most of them were formed 2.6 mil­lion years ago dur­ing the Qu­a­ter­nary Pe­riod. Some have re­tained their pointed cones, but some have them sliced off by the vi­o­lence of the past erup­tions. Lava val­leys and plateaus abound all around, cov­er­ing al­most 200 square kilo­me­ters. It is here that the con­tro­ver­sial Ashkule Vol­cano is lo­cated.

The Phan­tom Erup­tion

Vol­ca­noes are usu­ally clas­si­fied as “ac­tive” if they have erupted in the past 10,000 years. China has over 1,000 vol­ca­noes, but ac­tive ones are few. Ac­cord­ing to the world-wide list of ac­tive vol­ca­noes com­piled by the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, there are just over ten ac­tive vol­ca­noes in China—the main ones be­ing Chang­bais­han, Teng­chong, Wu­dalianchi, Jing­pohu, Long­gang and Ashkule.

On the 5th of July 1951, Thex­in­jiang­daily re­ported a very un­usual oc­cur­rence: “At 9:50 in the morn­ing, on the 27th of May, a vol­canic erup­tion oc­curred in the val­ley to the west of Kun­lun Da­ban (Da­ban means moun­tain pass), in the south of Yu­tian County. Dur­ing the first erup­tion, a rolling thun­der­ing noise was heard com­ing from the top of

Through the An­cient Path of Keliya

Since the Tang Dy­nasty (618–907), the mas­sive Kun­lun Moun­tains have wit­nessed count­less trav­el­ers trekking through the Keliya Moun­tain Pass. The moun­tains are the nat­u­ral bound­ary be­tween the Ti­betan Plateau and the Tarim Basin, and the path is the only link be­tween the two places. Even to­day, it re­mains the only choice if you want to step into the Ashikule Basin.

Small Vol­ca­noes Stand­ing in Lines

Usu­ally, when lava un­der­ground erupts through a lin­ear fis­sure vent, such an erup­tion leaves chains of small vol­ca­noes. The photo shows a typ­i­cal“vol­canic chain”in the Ashikule Basin. the moun­tain, which was fol­lowed by a col­umn of smoke ris­ing from the sum­mit. Three more such in­ci­dents then oc­curred in suc­ces­sion, with the in­ter­val of sev­eral min­utes, but with no smoke be­ing emit­ted. The moun­tain was seen as send­ing out smoke again sev­eral days later….”

This in­ci­dent was an ac­count by a road- build­ing crew work­ing in the area at the time. If proven to be true, then it is very likely that it was China’s most re­cent vol­canic erup­tion. For this rea­son, this story has at­tracted a lot of at­ten­tion from vol­ca­nol­o­gists.

The cu­ri­ous thing is that none of the sev­eral sci­en­tific sur­veys dis­patched to the area man­aged to find any ev­i­dence of an erup­tion, such as new emis­sions of lava, shroud­ing the whole in­ci­dent in mys­tery and spark­ing off the “erup­tion of Ashkule” con­tro­versy in the pro­fes­sional cir­cles and a flurry of ge­o­log­i­cal par­ties com­ing to the area to in­ves­ti­gate. How­ever, the re­mote­ness and the dif­fi­cult ter­rain made in-depth study so dif­fi­cult that the May 1951 in­ci­dent has re­mained an enigma ever since.

In Au­gust 2016, I de­cided to see for my­self what hap­pened in Kun­lun 65 years ago. I would go to the great Kun­lun wilder­ness to­gether with a sci­en­tific party of lo­cal ge­ol­o­gists, to look for the ev­i­dence of that mys­te­ri­ous erup­tion.

My col­leagues and I were very ex­cited, look­ing for­ward to the trip, but we also had plenty of con­cerns. Of course, any ge­ol­o­gist would be de­lighted to

Photo/ Liu Zhiy­ong

Range of Ashkule Basin Vol­cano Plat­form Lake Hot Spring Group Glacial

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