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North Korea: Into the crater

Lake Chon situated at the summit of Mount Paektu, North Korea Lake Chon situated at the summit of Mount Paektu, North Korea James Hammond
15 Jun
Mount Paektu is responsible for one of the largest eruptions in recorded history. The first ever international study of the volcano is now underway

For the first time, an international study has taken place on the North Korean side of Mount Paektu, a volcano which straddles the border with China. Previously there has been relatively little information about the volcano available to the international community, despite it being responsible for one of the world’s largest recorded eruptions, in 946 AD, which formed the 4km-wide Lake Chon at the volcano’s summit. It is a symbolic icon among North Koreans, featuring in the national emblem and as a backdrop for television broadcasts. Yet only following a 2011 invitation from within the closed nation have Western volcanologists been able to study it, and what has been termed the ‘millennium eruption’, more closely.

One question that really irks me is why the volcano is even there! We don’t know that

‘Even on the Chinese side there are fundamental questions that still haven’t been answered,’ explains James Hammond, a lecturer in geophysics in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London, and part of the team that has been flying in and out of Pyongyang. ‘We don’t know the history of the volcano very well. We know about this one eruption, but there have obviously been many more we don’t know about in any great detail. Most of the deposits that came out are in Korea. You can take them back to the lab, and understand how much gas was emitted during the eruption, what the conditions of the volcano were just before it erupted, and the timeline of events a thousand years ago. We haven’t had the chance to look beneath the volcano on the Korean side, so it’s quite exciting to be able to do that.’

Using data from six seismic imaging stations on the North Korean side of the border, the study has pointed to a region of molten rock that may exist ‘throughout a significant portion of the crust below the volcano’, which could explain the significant volcanic gas emissions and earthquake activity between 2002 and 2005. The findings were achieved using the ‘receiver function’ method, which measures energy from distant quakes. Identifying different types of seismic waves and interactions between them reveals information about volcanic crust thickness and rock composition.

‘This is just the start,’ insists Hammond. ‘One question that really irks me is why the volcano is even there! We don’t know that. Now that the collaboration is up and running, we’re looking to do more ambitious projects.’

This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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