While the rest of the world fears North Korean leader Kim Jong-un blowing his stack and unleashing a nuclear weapon, people in North Korea fear the Mount Paektu volcano blowing its stack and unleashing an historic eruption. Which could be worse? No outsiders see Kim Jong-un or his weapons but a group of Western volcano experts have been allowed to visit Mount Paektu and came back shaking at what they observed at this mysterious volcano many believe should not even exist.
Mount Paektu, also known as Baekdu or Changbai in China, is on the border between North Korea and China. Its massive eruption around 940 AD has been called the Millennium or Tianchi eruption and is considered to be one of the two largest eruptions (with the 1815 eruption of Tamborathe in Indonesia) in the last 5000 years.
There's no real consensus as to why the volcano is there in the first place. It's not sitting on a plate boundary, which is normally where we find most volcanoes.
James Hammond of the University of London, one of the experts and co-author of their report in Science Advances, says there’s not much pre-eruption history of Mount Paektu to give them a place to start. The volcano has been showing signs of activity since 2002 and there’s concern recent ones may be caused by underground nuclear testing. Who’s the most concerned? The 1.6 million North Koreans and Chinese people who live within 100 km (62 miles) of the 5 kilometer crater left by its last eruption. It even concerns people living in Japan where ashes from the 940 AD eruption landed.
Measurements from a 37-mile array of seismic equipment showed that a major portion of the volcano’s crust is already molten, but give no indication how much magma there is. James Hammond explains what’s next.
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. This volcano is quiet at the moment, but it’s definitely got potential. We need to keep an eye on it.
The destructive potential of the Mount Paektu volcano is big enough that the most repressive regime in the world opened its doors and asked for advice and help. We definitely need to keep an eye on it.