Massive volcano in North Korea may be waiting to blow

Saturday, April 16, 2016
By Paul Martin
April 16, 2016

April 2016 – NORTH KOREA – An enigmatic and dangerous giant sleeps on the border between China and North Korea. It’s quiet now, but a millennium ago, the volcano called Mount Paektu exploded with a fury rivaling the largest eruptions in recorded human history, hurling crackling rocks and ash as far away as Japan. Despite that violent outburst, Mount Paektu—or Changbai, as it’s called in Chinese—remains fundamentally mysterious. Few outside the region are even aware it exists. And no one knows if, or when, the 9,000-foot-tall (2,740-meter-tall) peak might erupt again. Now, armed with an array of seismometers and almost unprecedented access to North Korea, an international team of scientists is working to peer beneath Mount Paektu. Inscribed in those shifting layers of Earth are crucial clues about the possibility of future eruptions.

“Is there magma down there? Is there melt that could potentially lead to an eruption? All the stuff that’s driving volcanic eruptions lives in the subsurface,” says Kayla Iacovino of the U.S. Geological Survey, coauthor of a study appearing today in Science Advances that describes Mount Paektu’s subsurface anatomy. Unlike most volcanoes on Earth, Mount Paektu isn’t located where tectonic plates collide. It’s parked in the middle of a plate, at least 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) away from the massive subduction zone that created the Japanese islands. Simply put, Mount Paektu shouldn’t really be there.

“That’s one of the big mysteries,” Iacovino says. For North Koreans, Mount Paektu is sacred. It’s their national emblem, and it is believed to be the birthplace of the founder of the first Korean kingdom. Small villages are sprinkled on its flanks, and in the summer, the surrounding area is covered in blueberries. Higher up, hot springs and gassy vents hint at the mountain’s still beating volcanic heart, and a pool called Heaven Lake sits in the crater at its summit. On the Chinese side of the mountain, there’s a national park that is a popular destination for tourists and hikers. “It’s a gorgeous place,” says Iacovino, who worked on the mountain in August 2013.

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