Uncovering the secrets of Mount Paektu on the China, North Korea border

Its location on the border between China and North Korea means little is known about a volcano responsible for one of history's biggest eruptions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 9:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2014, 12:34pm


More than 1,000 years ago, a huge volcano straddling the border between North Korea and China was the site of one of the biggest eruptions in human history, blanketing eastern Asia in its ash.

But unlike other major volcanoes around the world, the remote and politically sensitive Mount Paektu remains almost a complete mystery to foreign scientists who have - until recently - been unable to conduct on-site studies.

Building the models of what happened previously allows us to address what might happen in the future

Fresh off their third visit to the volcano, two British scientists studying the mountain in an unprecedented joint project with North Korea say they may soon be able to reveal some of its secrets, including its likelihood of erupting again. They are collecting seismic data and studying rocks ejected in Paektu's "millennium eruption" sometime in the 10th century.

"It's one of the biggest eruptions in the last few thousands of years and we don't have yet a historical date for it," Clive Oppenheimer, a professor of vulcanology at Cambridge University, said after returning to Pyongyang last week from an eight-day trip to the volcano. "The rocks are a bit like the black box of a flight recording. There's so much that we can read from the field site itself."

For researchers, studying Paektu is a golden opportunity to break new ground because so much about it remains a puzzle.

Oppenheimer said it was not located along any of the tectonic locations that often explain volcanic activity, so just figuring out why it exists at all was one question that needed to be answered.

Paektu is considered sacred ground in China and in North Korea, where it is seen as a symbol of the ruling Kim family and of the revolution that led to the founding of the country, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. On the North Korean side, the area around the mountain is dotted with "revolutionary historical sites" and camps from which Kim Il-sung, North Korea's first president, is said to have led guerrilla raids against the Japanese.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans visit the mountain for political indoctrination tours each summer. North Korea is also hoping to develop the volcano, which has a crystal-blue crater lake, for foreign tourism.

Fears that the 2,800-metre-tall volcano might be unstable began to grow in 2002, when increased seismic activity and ground swelling suggested the magma below the volcano was shifting. That activity subsided in 2006. Though not seen as a serious possibility by most experts, concerns were raised in South Korea and Japan that nuclear tests in the North - conducted at a site less than 100km away - might trigger an eruption.

"That activity sparked a lot of interest both in China and the DPRK, but also in Japan and South Korea and internationally," said Oppenheimer's colleague James Hammond, a seismologist at Imperial College in London. He added that fears of another major eruption soon were probably unfounded. "It's certainly very tranquil at the moment," he said.

Even so, Hammond said the activity prompted the North Korean government to reach out to the international scientific community for help in understanding Paektu's inner workings.

The project began in 2011 at the request of a North Korean government agency, the Pyongyang International Information Centre on New Technology and Economy. Oppenheimer and Hammond became the first Westerners to visit the North's six field stations on the volcano.

"If we want to understand what the volcano is like today, we need to park instruments on the ground," Hammond said. "Building the models of what happened previously allows us to address what might happen in the future."

He said the North Korean side had been cooperative and highly professional. Hammond said that with their first year of data now completed, the scientists were hoping to begin the next stage of studying the data and samples in the laboratory and publishing papers on their findings with their North Korean colleagues early next year.

In September last year, Hammond installed six broadband seismometers to record activity on the volcano. He also collected samples of pumice that could provide insight into the scale of the millennium eruption, which is believed to have occurred between the years 930 and 940.

Hammond said their next trip was scheduled for next year and he hoped the project would continue beyond that. He also hoped to host North Korean researchers for training and joint research in Britain.