New Partners Keep Watch Over North Korean Volcano

One of six stations built on Mt. Paektu to monitor seismic activity. [Courtesy Kosima Weber-Liu]

Mount Paektu is a volcano with two-thirds of its mass in China and the rest looming tall in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. About a thousand years ago, it exploded in a fiery Millennium Eruption that covered more than 33,000 square kilometers of northeast China and Korea with ash. Even Japan was slightly affected. Though it's been relatively quiet since, seismic swarms at the mountain's surface about a decade ago caused scientists and citizens alike to worry: When will this quiet giant next spring to life?

On the Chinese side of the volcano, authorities concerned about the threat have installed seismometers to monitor the mountain. But the full risk picture from Paektu has remained unclear because of lack of access to the North Korean side — until now.

In the 6 September issue of Science, International News Editor Richard Stone reports on one of the first scientific collaborations between DPRK and the West. It started in September of 2011, at the request of North Korea's Pyongyang International Information Center on New Technology and Economy, and with support from Science's publisher, AAAS. Two British scientists — volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer from the University of Cambridge, and seismologist James Hammond from Imperial College London — became the first westerners to visit North Korea's volcano field stations at Mount Paektu.

A grant to AAAS from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation in Washington, D.C., has helped support the cost of the work done by the British and American team, including the cost of station construction, maintenance and logistics. Like AAAS, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation is calling on scientists to reach out to colleagues in countries with strained U.S. relations.

"This effort represents an exciting demonstration of active cooperation between Western and North Korean scientists in the fields of volcanology and seismology," said Norman P. Neureiter, senior adviser to AAAS's Center for Science Diplomacy, "and so far it appears to be working very well."

Just this month, the researchers returned to the base of the quiet giant with Oppenheimer's American graduate student, Kayla Iacovino. Hammond laid six broadband seismometers, instruments that will record the mountain's every underground tremor for the next year, placing each one in a sturdy concrete hut built specifically for the project by the Korean Earthquake Bureau. The hope is to use the data generated by the seismometers to not merely monitor the volcano — providing new scientific insight to eager volcanologists everywhere — but to forecast eruption scenarios.

Oppenheimer and Iacovino, meanwhile, collected samples of pumice, a volcanic rock that should reveal new details about the magnitude of the massive Millennium Eruption (scientists still don't agree on how much material was ejected during this event). This in turn will help researchers better estimate the volcano's eruption risk today, including the likelihood of a modern-day Millennium-scale event.

Beyond efforts on-site, Hammond and Oppenheimer hope to host Korean colleagues in the United Kingdom for training in volcano monitoring, and to collaborate on analyses of rock samples.

Korean Earthquake Bureau geologist Kim Ju Song (left), Clive Oppenheimer and Kayla Iacovino explore a Mt. Paeku dried lava creek. [Courtesy Kosima Weber-Liu]

Reaching this point has certainly required stamina. It was only after two years that the U.K. and U.S. governments granted permission to the team to ship crucial scientific instruments to North Korea. The U.K.'s Royal Society signed a research agreement and memorandum of understanding with DPRK organizations allowing the extraordinary collaboration to proceed.

Despite a rocky road to the volcano's base, the project appears to be off to a great start. And much like the next eruption Paektu's waiting to unleash, it has captured the attention of scientists and citizens alike for, as Neureiter explained, "It has the potential of leading to a program of extended scientific cooperation with North Korea.

Read the article, "Sizing Up a Slumbering Giant," by Richard Stone.

Read about past AAAS visits with researchers in the DPRK.