Granite Landform Diversity and Dynamics Underpin Geoheritage Values of Seoraksan Mountains, Republic of Korea
Seoraksan Mountains in the Republic of Korea are presented as an area of outstanding geodiversity combining rock-controlled granite landforms, inherited cold-climate landforms and highly active contemporary geomorphological processes. Three generations of granites, ranging in age from Proterozoic to Cretaceous, are present and each of these supports distinctive morphology. Cretaceous granites are associated with most spectacular features such as domes and towers, fins, long rock slopes, and fluvial gorges. The latter host abundant waterfalls of different types, potholes, and bedrock channels. While no clear glacial landforms exist in Seoraksan, widespread blockfields, blockslopes, and blockstreams constitute the cold-climate legacy of potentially important palaeoclimatic significance. Slope steepness and extreme rainfall events are the decisive factors to explain frequent mass movements which leave visible erosional and depositional evidence on slopes and in valley floors. The geodiversity of Seoraksan makes the area highly suitable for outdoor geo-education and it is also argued that the area represents a highly diverse, non-glaciated mountainous geomorphological system that integrates source and sink areas and is of exceptional value and extraordinary scenic beauty.
KeywordsGranite landforms Geodiversity Rock control Viewpoint geosites Seoraksan
Within the general concept of geoheritage, the major interest is implicitly on inherited geological and geomorphological features which record various events from the history of the Earth (Reynard and Brilha 2018). Furthermore, these features are often fragile and at risk of irreversible transformation or even complete loss due to either natural processes or, perhaps more often, human activities. Thus, evaluation of geoheritage values typically goes hand in hand with conservation initiatives and proposals, aimed at designing best strategies to preserve valuable geological localities as they are (Prosser et al. 2013, 2018; Larwood et al. 2013; Gordon et al. 2018). This past-oriented and conservation-driven approach needs to be refined in dynamic mountainous environments, especially in the so-called “high mountains.” In these settings, ongoing surface geomorphic processes considerably modify the physical landscape and as far as the scenery is concerned, rather little testifies to the distant geological past. In many specific cases in mid- to high latitudes, glacial landforms dominate the scenery but even these usually date back to the late Pleistocene. In such mountain environments, the contemporary geodiversity rather than the variety of inherited features is often considered decisive for the geoheritage value (Panizza 2009; Giardino et al. 2017; Coratza and Hobléa 2018). However, some mountain ranges, even if they were glaciated in the Pleistocene, retain their pre-Quaternary geomorphic features at both macro (e.g., remnants of elevated surfaces of low relief) and medium scale (e.g., tors and blockfields), formed under long-term controls of geological setting and climate change (Slaymaker and Embleton-Hamann 2009, 2018; Hall et al. 2013; Gunnell 2015). Thus, mountain geomorphological landscapes are inherently complex and this needs to be reflected in both geoheritage and geodiversity assessment (Thomas 2012; Gordon 2018).
Location and Main Traits of Relief
Seoraksan is built of various igneous and metamorphic rocks which differ in age and record different stages of geotectonic evolution of the Korean Peninsula. Three main generations of rock complexes can be distinguished, of Proterozoic/early Paleozoic, Jurassic and Cretaceous age, respectively, with granites being an important component of each complex (Kee et al. 2010). Proterozoic rocks are represented by gneisses, subordinately by quartzites and amphibolites, intruded by a few lithological variants of granites. Due to subsequent deformation, the latter have acquired certain features of metamorphic rocks such as foliation and banding. The next generation of granites, collectively known as the Daebo Granites, is of Jurassic age. Zircon Pb-U ages for these granites range from 170 to 190 Ma (Kee et al. 2010). These are mainly biotite and two mica granites, equigranular, with medium to coarse texture, and locally weakly foliated. The youngest granites are of Cretaceous age and date from about 88 Ma. Again, several lithological variants are present, including coarser Seoraksan granites, with porphyritic texture and locally with large (a few cm long) potassium feldspar crystals, and finer Gwittaegicheong granites which form localized occurrences (stocks) within the more widespread Seoraksan granites. In the northern part of the National Park, where blockfields and blockslopes abound, quartz-feldspar porphyry is widespread. Stratigraphically, the Jurassic and Cretaceous granites are separated by clastic and volcanic rocks of the Baekdam Group which occur in the central-north part of Seoraksan (Kee et al. 2010).
Several major faults have been mapped around Seoraksan, trending NE–SW, NNE–SSW, and WNW–ESE and partly coincident with morphological boundaries of the mountain range. They are strike-slip faults and interpreted as multi-phase, active during the Mesozoic (Kee et al. 2010). However, their late Cenozoic reactivation is likely, considering the geomorphological characteristics of Seoraksan.
Granite Landforms and Key Geosite Localities
Structural (or rock-controlled) landforms are understood as those which owe their morphological characteristics to the properties of the bedrock itself, including its lithological features, discontinuities, orientation of strike and dip (if applicable), and juxtaposition of different rock types. While the role of exogenic processes to make the structure visible is obvious and each fluvial erosional landform in a rock-cut channel or a periglacial landform reflects bedrock control, the focus here is on relationships between rocks, granites in this particular case, and denudational landforms. Seoraksan is a most suitable location to examine such relationships due to the close occurrence of different variants of granite, good exposure, and wide vistas. Among the four localities considered below, Daecheongbong represents Proterozoic granites, whereas the remaining three are built of Cretaceous granite.
Ulsanbawi is the most accessible among numerous granite monoliths in Seoraksan, reached by a marked trail from the main gateway to the Park in Oeseorak (meaning “the outer part of the Seoraksan Mountain”). The trail, equipped with ladders in the final part, allows visitors to get to the top of the mountain. Ulsanbawi is a steep-sided rock ridge built of the Seoraksan granite, c. 2 km long and 200 m wide, elongated NW–SE, and rising above moderately steep (c. 30°) regolith-covered slopes (Fig. 4b). Extension of the ridge follows regional discontinuities oblique to the main WNW–ESE trending faults, whereas perpendicular SW–NE joints divide the ridge into a number of individual compartments. However, none of these joints has yet been hollowed out to form a ridge-cutting ravine. The rock slopes of Ulsanbawi are c. 150 m high. The massive primary structure of the monolith has allowed curved sheeting joints to develop and these, along with vertical discontinuities, govern the pattern of rock slope failures. Numerous scars and overhangs testify to the detachment of large volumes of rock, the complementary evidence being big boulders (as much as > 10 m long) scattered on slopes. In turn, degradation of the summit parts is controlled by the vertical joints and includes the development of clefts, separation of fins, and their eventual fall. Thus, Ulsanbawi is a very good example of both the geomorphic expression of a massive granite compartment amidst more jointed bedrock, the geomorphic role of joints, and the diverse patterns of rock slope degradation.
The triple dome of Biseondae is perhaps the best in Seoraksan, and certainly the most accessible type of a granite landform identified worldwide as the most characteristic for granites (Twidale 1982; Migoń 2006). It rises above the Cheonbuldong valley floor, with rock slopes reaching down to the bedrock channel (Fig. 4c). The total height of the dome is c. 250 m, with the western part being both the highest and most regularly shaped. The tripartite structure of Biseondae results from the presence of two zones of bedrock shattering, whereas the nearly perfect shape of the western dome is due to the paucity of vertical and horizontal joints. Instead, curved sheeting joints are prominent. Halfway up the rock slope, an artificially enlarged cavity of Geumganggul hosts a Buddhist shrine. The little observation deck at the entrance offers views over the Cheonbuldong Valley and towards Mt. Daecheongbong, complementing the view from the latter and showing the remarkable morphological contrast between two types of granites.
This place name refers to the section of the ridge in the central part of Seoraksan which connects Mt. Daecheongbong in the south and Mt. Madeungnyeong in the north (Fig. 2). The ridge is accessible for hikers along a technically difficult trail which climbs or skirts consecutive granite peaks. While different shapes of granite residual peaks may be seen along the path, including domes, half-domes, conical peaks, and angular towers, the most characteristic are narrow fins (Fig. 4d). Fins, present mainly in the eastern part of the ridge, may be considered as equivalents of domes which have developed in places where vertical joints of one predominant direction are more closely spaced, whereas the perpendicular direction is under-represented. In such cases, there is little scope for curved unloading joints. Fins are characterized by high, nearly vertical walls 50–200 m high, facing two opposite directions, and a serrated crest line.
The fluvial morphology of Seoraksan is dominated by bedrock channels and high-energy, boulder-rich, braided channels. The former are particularly abundant in the headwater sections of valleys, although at many places, bedrock is concealed under recent debris flow deposits. Longitudinal stream profiles are very irregular, with multiple steps and more evident knickpoint zones. At the local scale, this fluvial assemblage certainly reflects the resistance of bedrock but it is also tempting to use it as an indicator of ongoing uplift of the area and incision in response. The most characteristic landforms testifying to ongoing incision are slot canyons and waterfalls. The latter are abundant and occur on streams of all sizes, in a variety of shapes, ranging from free falls for more than 50 m to steep chutes, and cascading staircases. Waterfalls are associated with potholes and other minor forms of bedrock erosion.
The Cheonbuldong valley in the north-eastern part of Seoraksan is widely acclaimed as one of the highlights of the National Park for its impressive scenery, particularly in autumn. However, it also offers a spectacular collection of fluvial landforms which includes slot gorges, waterfalls, singular and strings of potholes, inclined rock slabs, and shallow rock-cut troughs. Among them, the slot canyon in the upper part of the valley deserves particular attention as the most accessible landform of this kind in Seoraksan. It is c. 100 m long and has a tight V-shaped cross-section (Fig. 5b). It is bounded by 60–80° inclined rock walls with densely spaced unloading joints. Two > 10-m-high waterfalls are present at either end of the slot. Controls on the occurrence of the canyon are structural. It follows a N–S zone of highly fractured rock.
This is the highest waterfall in Seoraksan, with a single drop of 88 m (Fig. 5c), exposed for viewing from the observation platform in front of it, roughly at the height of the threshold. It is located within a minor tributary valley to the Jayangcheon trunk valley, the former beginning (upstream of the falls) only less than 2 km long upstream of the falls. Therefore, the amount of water is limited (which to some extent reduces the visual impact) and the threshold shows little evidence of dissection. However, Daeseungpokpo Falls is an excellent example of a knickpoint that separates a deeply incised, rejuvenated reach downstream, and a wide upstream section filled by thick boulder-dominated debris flow deposits. Both sections of the valley can be seen from a trail that connects the ranger station at Jangsudae in the main valley and Mt. Daeseungyeong in the main ridge.
Biryongpokpo Falls and Yukdampokpo Falls
These two easily accessible waterfalls close to the main tourist service area in Oeseorak offer contrasting examples of controls on waterfall origin. Biryongpokpo Falls is located further upstream and represents a single drop of 16 m into a large pool deepened by erosion. The origin of the falls is related to variable structural conditions along the stream length. The waterfall occurs at a spot where the stream leaves one heavily jointed and hence more erodible linear zone, makes a 90° turn and enters another jointed zone, parallel to the former. The fall is over the more massive threshold separating the two zones (Fig. 5d). Yukdampokpo Falls occur within a relatively straight reach, similarly over a more massive rock compartment. It consists of two parts: the upper one is a steep chute; the lower one is a free fall into a large erosional basin. Immediately upstream, two potholes separated by a series of rock slabs and a rock-cut trough indicate the presence of the same, less erodible zone across the valley.
During the Pleistocene, Seoraksan was not glaciated, or at least there is no unequivocal evidence for local glaciation. No evident cirques occur and none of the major valleys shows clear morphological features of glacial erosion (U-shaped cross-section, ice-molded hills). However, similar to some other Korean mountains (e.g., Rhee et al. 2017), a clear testament of cold-climate conditions is provided by extensive blockfields (products of in situ mechanical breakdown, with little subsequent movement) and blockslopes (some gravity-driven movement may have occurred) (Park 2000, 2003). Their occurrence is lithology-controlled. Practically, no blocky accumulations occur within coarse Seoraksan granites where the upper slopes are too steep to host blockfields anyway, whereas they are abundant in finer-grained and more jointed granite variants such as the Cretaceous Gwittaegicheong granite and in quartz-feldspar porphyry. Some metamorphic rocks support blocky accumulations too (e.g., along the main ridge west of Mt. Kkeutcheong), although these are almost entirely forested. Being located at rather low latitude and altitude, the blockfields of Seoraksan, although probably less scenic than other granite landforms, are equally valuable part of the regional geoheritage, possibly quite significant for palaeoclimatic research in East Asia.
North- and south-facing slopes of Hwangcheolbong in the northern part of Seoraksan host the most impressive and the most extensive blocky accumulations. Among the potential geomorphosites presented here, this is the only locality currently inaccessible, as the trail has been closed since 1991 for nature restoration. Nevertheless, the northeast-facing blockslope can be seen from a panoramic viewpoint on top of Ulsanbawi. Disregarding some forest patches within the blockslope, its entire exposed part occupies an area of 650 × 350 m (Fig. 6b). Bedrock cliffs, 2–3 m high, are present close to and across the ridge, accounting for its stepped profile. The blockslope itself is composed of angular fragments of variable size, up to 3 m long. Several topographic features suggest past cementation by ground ice and permafrost creep. These are closed elongated and linear hollows, lobate ramparts pointing downslope, and individual blocks in emerging position. Next to the main blockslope and east of it, block accumulations are confined to valleys and are distinctly elongated (= blockstreams), forming a branched pattern. These spatial relationships suggest the removal of fine material by throughflow and residual character of blocky accumulations which in turn points to a complex origin of blockfields in Seoraksan.
Sites Evidencing Contemporary Dynamics
Seoraksan is a very dynamic mountain environment. High rates of geomorphic processes result from the combined effects of high relative relief and abundant precipitation. The height difference between crest lines and valley floors is considerable, reaching the order of 1000 m or more over very short distances of 2–3 km, resulting in extremely steep slopes, where inclinations > 30° are the norm and sections > 50°, including nearly vertical rock slopes, are common. Annual precipitation is around 1200–1400 mm but a significant part of it comes as heavy summer rains with daily totals of the order of several hundred millimeters, and occasionally, Seoraksan is hit by a typhoon, with hourly intensities above 100 mm. In these circumstances, mass movements and torrential flows in channels are generated, capable of significant remodeling of the landscape.
The two most common mass movement processes are rock falls and debris flows, the latter transforming into hyperconcentrated flows within the channels and valley floors. These flows, given sudden generation by extreme rainfall, may be considered as flash floods in hydrological terms. Although both types are favored by geological conditions and rock properties, their triggers and geomorphic impact are different. Rock falls occur on very steep rock slopes which are subject to high tensile stresses, resulting in primary joint opening and the development of secondary unloading sheeting joints. Along these intersecting joint planes, large rock compartments are detached and move downslope. In this way, huge granite blocks fall, roll, or slide down, eventually reaching the footslopes or the valley floors. Debris flows, in turn, are distinctly weather-controlled phenomena and are initiated during typhoons on regolith-covered slopes. Movement typically starts with slow sliding of water-laden regolith over a steeply inclined sheeting plane and transforms into a flow after reaching a ravine or headwater valley. These debris-laden flows in Seoraksan may travel for many kilometers, completely transforming the pre-existing morphology of valley floors.
The visible evidence of mass movements and valley floor remodeling is ubiquitous in Seoraksan. The legacy of rock falls comprises scars and overhangs within rock slopes and chaotic blocky accumulations at the foot of rock slopes, including valley floors if there is direct slope-channel coupling. Debris slides leave exposed bedrock slabs within otherwise forested slopes, whereas subsequent flows produce big boulders scattered in the valley floors, lateral ridges (levees), and debris fans at the junction with a main valley. Exposed sequences of flow-related deposits may reach 10 m. Depending on the length of time that has elapsed since an event, these features are still bare or colonized by re-established vegetation. However, if trails or other infrastructure were affected, engineering work erases most geomorphic effects. Here, three representative localities in the southern part of the Park are characterized in more detail.
The trail from Hangyeryeong Pass to the main ridge climbs steeply through dense forest but from a few places upper sections of debris flow tracks may be seen (Fig. 7b). They provide a good illustration of the general mechanism, showing exposed, steeply dipping sheeting surfaces as the detachment area c. 25 m wide and a boulder-filled ravine below. Further up, the trail crosses the track of another debris flow, this time initiated within a low-angle, regolith-covered slope. Broken and transported tree logs can be still observed (Fig. 7c).
The tributary valley of Heulimgol was completely re-shaped by a flood in 2009 and rehabilitated after 2012. The value of this locality, easily accessible due to its roadside setting, is thus not to see the effects of ongoing processes, as these have been erased, but the amount of work required to restore safety. The valley floor has been transformed into a box-shaped chute, with big blocks of local rocks used to stabilize the floor and the banks (Fig. 7d). However, a panel at the road bridge contains photographs indicating the scale of transformation due to debris flow and damage.
Dual Significance of Granite Landforms—Inherited Features and Ongoing Dynamics
Seoraksan provides an example of an area where inherited and contemporary geomorphological features combine into high-value geodiversity, additionally coupled with outstanding scenic attributes which directly bear on the area’s popularity among tourists. It is not the only area for which such a combination was comprehensively documented and one might argue that each mountainous area is typified by a comparable association of values. However, in most examples, inheritance is linked with Pleistocene glacial legacy whose temporal context can be reasonably constrained by dating techniques. Examples include the Dolomites in Italy (Panizza 2009; Soldati 2010) and various other parts of the Alps (Bollati et al. 2017; Giardino et al. 2017). In much fewer examples, both pre-Quaternary erosional history and Quaternary glacial inheritance are highlighted, such as in the Cairngorms, Scotland (Kirkbride and Gordon 2010; Hall et al. 2013). Non-glacial long-term evolution, much more problematic to date, is highlighted less frequently. Furthermore, contemporary dynamics is rarely addressed and its contribution to regional geoheritage, clearly focused on conservation, is either given a secondary role or, perhaps unintentionally, neglected.
Against this background, one can better evaluate the significance of Seoraksan’s geomorphological heritage. Here, geomorphological inheritance is manifest not only in evidently “fossilized” features such as blockfields (although they probably should not be considered entirely relict—see Park 2000, 2003), but also in bedrock-controlled major denudational landforms such as domes, fins, and towers, which are products of long-term operation of exogenous processes, apparently in relation to ongoing, although poorly understood and constrained surface uplift. Likewise, minor erosional features such as waterfall steps and bedrock channels have their roots in the geomorphic history of the area. However, contemporary processes continue to shape these landforms, particularly through extreme geomorphic phenomena of rock and debris slides, debris flows, boulder falls, and floods. Separating inheritance from ongoing dynamics is neither feasible nor helpful in understanding and appreciating Seoraksan’s geoheritage and the same is probably true for other non-glaciated mountain ranges which show considerable surface dynamics.
Seoraksan is an example of a predominantly granite geomorphological landscape and outstanding values of granite scenery in general have been emphasized many times. Leaving aside spectacular granite mountainous terrains glaciated in the past or at present, such as those of Yosemite (USA), Torres del Paine (Chile), Los Glaciares National Park (Argentina), or Serra da Estrela (Portugal), numerous non-glaciated granite mountains have long been appreciated for their physical landscape, even making their way into the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of their scenery, following the World Heritage criterion no. (vii). These include granite mountains of east China—Huangshan and Sanqingshan (Thomas 2010), prominent inselbergs massifs of the Namib Desert (Migoń 2010; Goudie and Viles 2015), or granite-gneiss domes in Rio de Janeiro (Fernandes et al. 2010). However, none of these examples highlights ongoing landforming processes as significant contributing agents. Other examples of granite landscapes of considerable value for geosciences such as those of south-west England (Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor – Campbell et al. 1998; Gunnell et al. 2013), Sardinia (Melis et al. 2017), Lower Austria (Huber 1999, Migoń et al. 2018), or the Mojave Desert, USA (Oberlander 1974), are more subdued and lack high-magnitude but short-duration geomorphic events which would considerably alter the scenery. Thus, in terms of current recognition and potential significance, Seoraksan can be considered as a benchmark terrain to demonstrate intertwining of inherited landforms and contemporary processes to shape granite scenery of outstanding scenic value which has never been shaped by glaciers.
Perspectives and Issues in Geoscience Outreach and Geo-education
Despite outstanding values, the geo-educational potential of Seoraksan is so far poorly exploited. Current outdoor interpretative facilities are almost entirely focused on biological values, ecosystem complexity, rare plant, and animal species. A few geomorphic localities, including several presented in this paper, have information panels focused on individual landforms such as waterfalls or peculiar boulders, but the stories told are local legends and tales rather than targeted attempts to enhance visitors’ understanding. In other places (e.g., at Gwongeumseong and Gongyeongneungseon), large panels were erected but their information content is limited to naming peaks visible from these localities, nothing else. Another aspect is that many trails, accessible in the past, were closed due to long-term nature restoration projects and it is uncertain whether they will ever re-open. Among them, permanent closure of the Hwangcheolbong trail would be a particular loss since it shows the most impressive and varied examples of periglacial blockfields and blockslopes.
All initiatives towards popularization of geoheritage and geodiversity of Seoraksan may have one significant constraint, related to a theme argued to be significant for geoscientific value of the territory, i.e., contemporary geomorphic dynamics. Long sections of trails cross the terrain which is not only technically difficult but geomorphologically active, with impact on trail infrastructure. Processes affecting paths, boardwalks, and stairs include rock falls, slides, torrential/flash flood flows, and tree uprooting. In the last decade, several important trails had to be temporarily closed due to damage from geomorphic activity and some are closed for this reason at the moment. Critical sites are monitored, while in other spots, steep and potentially unstable rock walls have been artificially strengthened. However, the constant threat from surface processes may be also seen as an opportunity to increase knowledge about landscape dynamics, impact of natural events, their triggers, remedies, and countermeasures. In fact, in a few places, information panels recall specific events of this kind such as the collapse of an elevated boardwalk in Cheonbuldong Valley in 2007.
Seoraksan provides an excellent example of a mountainous terrain whose value and significance reside simultaneously in both landform inheritance and contemporary geomorphological processes. The extraordinary geodiversity of the area, primarily geomorphological diversity, results from the combination of various regional and site-specific rock controls on landforms and processes, the presence of landforms formed over different timescales and subject to various pathways of remodeling under present-day conditions. Although never glaciated (at least, not re-shaped by glaciers to any evident extent), Seoraksan hosts numerous inherited landforms produced by cold-climate conditions as well as structural landforms whose assignment to certain narrowly-defined timespans does not seem possible. Therefore, referring to the conceptual issue of “significance” present at the interface of geosciences, and geomorphology in particular, and nature conservation and promotion (Migoń 2014), Seoraksan may indeed be considered as a highly significant representative of unglaciated, very dynamic granite mountain scenery, and possibly a “type geomorphic locality” for any comparative studies. Moreover, it is argued that strategies to develop geo-education and more informed educational tourism should seriously consider this geological control—landform inheritance—contemporary geomorphological process triad which together explain the complexity of mountain landscapes, since Seoraksan is a most suitable place to explore these issues, also for general public.
This research project was supported by Injegun (Gangwondo) and the Cultural Heritage Administration to the Natural Heritage Institute of Korea. We are grateful to Mr. M. Y. Lee and Ms. S. O. Ju for their field assistance and the National Park Service for permission to visit some wild sites. Mr. H. J. Yoon at the Inje County Government is specially appreciated for his support for administration and field work. We are also grateful to other members of the research team for their helpful discussion during our field work. Two journal reviewers are thanked for their constructive comments on the first version of the paper.
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