2016-12-09 13:04:16
Only a Rumbling Volcano Could Make North Korea and the West Play Nice

13:04, December 09 177 0

Today the volcano that straddles the border between China and North Korea is tranquil. Hot springs simmer on the surrounding peaks, wild blueberries grow on its green slopes and a crystal-clear pool called Heaven Lake fills its crater.

But Mount Paektu, as the North Koreans call it, is only asleep. When it last awoke about a thousand years ago, the so-called Millennium Eruption unleashed one of the most violent volcanic events in recorded human history. And when North Korean scientists recorded a swarm of tiny earthquakes rumbling beneath the volcano from 2002 to 2005, they were so concerned that the reclusive country eventually reached out to the West for help.

The result was a rare collaboration of scientists from North Korea and researchers from countries with which it has hostile relations. Officials from Pyongyang first reached out in 2011, and after two years of planning the project was set. In 2013, volcanologists from the United States and Britain met researchers in North Korea to investigate Mount Paektu and its magma plumbing. The effort has since yielded tantalizing insights into the slumbering giant that once blanketed the Korean Peninsula in an avalanche of ash.

Mount Paektu is sacred to the North Korean people. They valorize it as the site where Kim Il Sung, the founding father of modern North Korea, used guerrilla tactics to fight the Japanese during World War II, and the supposed birthplace of his son, Kim Jong-il, who succeeded him as the country’s leader. North Koreans make pilgrimages to the mountain and students march up its summit singing songs. It is an important fixture in their everyday lives, visible in their paintings and propaganda. Even kindergartners sing the song “Let’s go to Mount Paektu.”

“That cultural significance explains part of the motivation for the scientists there to understand the volcano,” said Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge who was part of the team. “They are concerned about the cultural impact that a future large eruption would have.”

That willingness to work helped the team collect vital information about the volcano’s inner workings. But the collaboration was not without its difficulties.

“Typically as a geologist you want to walk around and explore, and you could imagine in North Korea that can be something of a challenge,” said James Hammond, a geophysicist from Birkbeck, University of London, who participated in the research. “You can’t just walk off and go wherever you want to, but with some communication and scientific argument, everything we wanted to do we got.”

They communicated through translators who accompanied them throughout the trip. One challenge was the scientific gap between the two groups. Barred from attending conferences outside their country and denied access to most scientific literature, the North Koreans had been isolated from the last 20 years of debate in volcanology and geophysics. But they were eager to learn. Efforts to contact the researchers from the Earthquake Administration and the State Academy of Science through North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations were not successful.

One of the questions that the team set out to answer was how much gas the Millennium Eruption sent into the sky, and whether the event affected the climate in the Northern Hemisphere.

Large eruptions can release huge clouds of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. There, the sulfur gas transforms into a sulfate aerosol that reflects sunlight and cools the planet. The famous modern example was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which ejected so much volcanic dust and rock into the stratosphere it caused what is known as “the year without summer,” a time when blizzards hit New York in June and frost wreaked havoc on crops in New England in July. That eruption released an estimated 28 megatons of sulfur.

When the sulfur falls back to the ground, it can get trapped and preserved in polar ice. Previous studies of ice cores from Greenland dated to 946 A.D. when the Millennium Eruption occurred had low levels of sulfur, suggesting that the eruption emitted a small amount of gas and did not have strong effects on the climate. But the team thought the ice core estimates might have been low and wanted to test for sulfur traces within the white pumice that came from the actual eruption and was now scattered across the volcano.

By analyzing the white pumice for geochemical clues, the team found that the Millennium Eruption actually emitted a large amount of sulfur into the atmosphere, an estimated 45 megatons of it. That is about 20 times more than previous estimates had suggested, and about 1.5 times more than was emitted by Mount Tambora.

“This eruption had much more gas than we thought it did in the past,” said Kayla Iacovino, a volcanologist from Arizona State University, and lead author on the team’s most recent paper. “It had enough gas to place it as one of the largest gas-emitting volcanoes in human history.”

With that information, Dr. Iacovino said that the gas from the Millennium Eruption had the potential to affect the climate. But that does not mean that it did. Several factors, like the mountain’s high latitude and the time of year it erupted could also have influenced its climate effects. They published their findings last week in the journal Science Advances.

Marc-Antoine Longpré, a volcanologist from Queens College in New York who was not involved in the research, said that the paper “offers a fresh and improved view on this enigmatic volcanic event.”

He said that the authors’ estimates for sulfur emissions were most likely much closer to the true emissions from the Millennium Eruption than previous studies provided. But he added that the finding required further investigation.

Dr. Iacovino said that the next step to forecasting any future eruptions would be continued monitoring.

“We were able to make this collaboration supersuccessful in no small part thanks to the North Korean government,” she said. She hopes the results from their work with the North Koreans will lead to further collaborations. “If we can understand the volcano’s history, what the volcano is capable of, only then can we start to make predictions of what it might do in the future.”