© Raymond Cunningham/Getty
The crater atop Mount Paektu
Rare example of collaboration with isolationist regime’s researchers helps reveal secrets of one of the world’s largest volcanoes
If it blows again, it could make Vesuvius look like a tea party.
Now, in a ground-breaking collaboration between the West and North Korea, vulcanologists are gaining new insights into Mount Paektu, on North Korea’s border with China, and whether it might blow its top any time soon.
If it does, the outcome could be catastrophic. Paektu’s last eruption, a thousand years ago, is the second largest ever recorded, topped only by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815.
“If it erupted, it would have impacts way beyond Korea and China,” says James Hammond of Birkbeck, University of London, one of the scientists involved.
In 946 AD, the eruption of Mount Paektu, Korea’s highest mountain, blasted 96 cubic kilometres of debris into the sky, 30 times more than the relatively puny 3.3 cubic kilometres that Vesuvius spewed over Pompeii in AD 79.
Yet despite is size and the potential impact of an eruption, little is known about this enigmatic volcano.
Western researchers got involved because the team investigating the volcano in North Korea, led by Ri Kyong-Song of the government’s Earthquake Administration in Pyongyang, needed access to extra scientific equipment and know-how.
Chinese vulcanologists, who have been monitoring the volcano they call Changbaishan from their side of the border, also wanted more information from the Korean side.
They and the Koreans have been monitoring the volcano closely ever since suspicious bulges were seen in and around the volcano between 2002 and 2005. These involved ground deformations measured by GPS, increased gas emissions and seismic rumbles.
“It’s a priority for both countries, and both have monitoring networks on the volcano, keeping an eye on it,” says Hammond.
Hammond and others from the West were invited to Korea in 2011 to install six seismometers at distances up to 60 kilometres from the volcano. These were sited to detect seismic waves from earthquakes elsewhere in the world passing through the ground beneath Paektu.
Seismic waves travel at different speeds through solid and molten rock, giving the researchers crucial information about what lies beneath.
The results reveal that there is indeed extensive magma beneath the volcano. “It’s a mushy mixture of molten rock and crystals that goes down right through the crust around 35 kilometres deep,” says Hammond.
It’s rare to see a partially melted type of magma with such a large fluid component throughout the whole crust, he says.
These are the first known estimates of the crustal structure of the volcano’s North Korea side and for anywhere beneath North Korea.
The partially melted crust is a potential source for magma in past eruptions and it may be associated with the recent volcanic unrest there.
At the moment, though, there’s no pool of liquid magma gathering near the surface – often a prelude to an eruption.
“One of the challenges now is to go beyond simply saying there’s magma in the crust, discovering instead how it’s sitting, how much there is and what are the implications,” says Hammond. “It’s only when it gets to a certain amount and a certain overpressure that it will erupt.”
At present, the researchers are not sure how much has to accumulate before the volcano erupts, he says.
That’s why the collaboration is set to continue for some time, with Hammond due back in Pyongyang next week. “We’ll be discussing what we’ll do over the next 12 months, and longer term over the next five to 10 years,” says Hammond.
After years working together, the two teams have got to know each other well, talking geology through an interpreter during the day, and in the evening heading for a restaurant or karaoke bar.
No politics, just science
“With what we’re doing, there’s no political element – we’re involved to understand a huge volcano, and the fact we’re having this dialogue is a great example of science transcending political differences,” says Hammond.
Ri also spent a month in the UK finalising the results and the draft for publication. “Our project is an example that it’s possible to build these collaborations and establish mutual trust,” says Hammond. “It’s been an advantage that our science doesn’t come with much political baggage.”
North Korea is keen to open doors for more scientists through an institution called Piintec, Hammond says. “The Koreans are very open to science engagement in most areas.”
“This is a bit of a first, in terms of a collaboration resulting in publication in a high-profile Western journal,” says Hammond.
So next week, when he reaches Pyongyang, he and his Korean colleagues will be celebrating, probably in a karaoke bar in Pyongyang, drinking soju, the rice liquor popular in the country.
“We get on very well,” says Hammond. “That’s why it works, through relationships and trust, and for that to work you need to understand each other.”
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501513