North Korea’s Mysterious Supervolcano May Be Ready to Blow

April 19, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Heaven Lake at Mount Paektu
Photo credit: Bdpmax/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Its eruption could make Pompeii look like a tea party.

In what is being called a ground-breaking collaboration between the West and North Korea, volcanologists are gaining new insights into the country’s highest mountain, Mount Paektu, a large and sacred volcano found on North Korea’s border with China, and whether it might blow its top any time soon.

If this sleeping giant does erupt, it could make Vesuvius look like a tea party. Paektu’s last eruption, which was over one thousand years ago, is the second largest ever recorded, beat only by the outburst of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815.

“If it erupted, it would have impacts way beyond Korea and China,” seismologist James Hammond of Birkbeck, University of London, and one of the scientists involved in the research, told New Scientist.

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The eruption of Mount Paektu in 946 AD blasted 96 cubic kilometers of debris into the sky — 30 times more than the 3.33 cubic kilometers that Vesuvius spewed over Pompeii in 79 AD. However, despite the enormous size of the volcano, Paektu remains enigmatic.

Unlike most volcanoes on Earth, Mount Paektu isn’t located where tectonic plates collide — it is smack-dab in the middle of a plate. It shouldn’t really be there, and that is where its mystery lies.

Western researchers ended up getting involved in the study 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. Even Chinese volcanologists, who have been monitoring the volcano they call Changbai from their side of the border, want more information from the Korean side.

In fact, both the Chinese and the Koreans have been monitoring the volcano very closely since suspicious bulges were discovered in and around the volcano between 2002 and 2005. These bulges were 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,” Hammond said.

Hammond, along with other scientists from the West, armed the mountain with six seismometers at distances up to 60 kilometers from the volcano back in 2011. The seismometers were sited to detect seismic waves produced by earthquakes from all around the world passing through the ground beneath Paektu. Since seismic waves travel at different speeds through solid and molten rock, they provide researchers with crucial information about what lies beneath Paektu’s surface.

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So far, the results have revealed that there is an extensive amount of 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,” said Hammond.

However, there is currently no pool of liquid magma gathering near the surface, which is often a prelude to an upcoming 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,” explained Hammond. “It’s only when it gets to a certain amount and a certain overpressure that it will erupt.”

Currently, researchers do not know how much magma has to accumulate before the volcano will erupt, which is why this collaboration is set to continue for the next 12 months at least. However, it could extend up to five or ten years.

If this project has taught us anything, it’s that it is possible to build collaborations and establish mutual trust without the interference of political baggage. According to Hammond, “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.”

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