Experts are worried about Mount Paektu, one of the world’s most dangerous supervolcanoes on the borders of North Korea and China. Volcanologists recently raised the alarm that supervolcano Mt. Paektu, or Baekdu (also known as Changbai in Chinese), responsible for one of the most powerful eruptions in human history, is rumbling and threatening to blow up once again. Experts know so little about the 9,000-foot-tall (2740 meters) monster, yet recent studies suggest it could be on the brink of a major eruption that could have a devastating global impact.
The volcano had been quiet since its last major eruption in 946 A.D. until it came alive in 2002. From 2002 to 2005, there was a series of mini earthquakes caused by seismic activity within the volcano, according to National Geographic.
Although it went silent again after 2005, the brief activity alarmed the North Korean authorities and forced them to set aside their policy of isolation and secrecy. They reached out to neighboring countries, including China. They also contacted top scientists in Western countries and asked for technical assistance to study the volcano.
The outreach led to a rare collaboration in 2013 between a team of North Korean experts led by Ri Kyong-Song of the Earthquake Administration in Pyongyang and a team of Western scientists led by James Hammond of the University of London.
Despite the ongoing bitter feud with the West and an unwavering policy of isolation, the North Korean government granted the team of international scientists, including experts from the U.K. and the U.S., access to North Korea to help local experts study the supervolcano and assess the risk of an eruption.
The results of the study were published in the journal Science Advances in April 2016.
Data collected by the experts showed that Mt. Paektu was still active and that it could erupt. But the scientists said they would like to return to North Korea to conduct more detailed studies to improve their ability to predict when and how the volcano could erupt.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) seismologist Kayla Iacovina, who co-authored the 2016 study, data collected during two years of monitoring Mount Paektu indicated the presence of partially melted magma in the volcano. This indicated to researchers that the volcano was still active and that it could erupt violently in the future.
The scientists warned solemnly that an eruption similar in scale to the 946 A.D. event could prove catastrophic.
“I think the risk of a destructive eruption here is very real,” seismologist Stephen Grand at the University of Texas at Austin told National Geographic.
“This volcano [is] responsible for one of the largest eruptions on record.”
Following initial evidence that Mount Paektu could erupt, scientists warned in a study, published in the journal Nature in February 2016, that disturbances caused by nuclear weapons testing by the regime of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator, could upset lava that has accumulated beneath the surface and trigger an eruption of Mount Paektu.
A study by a team of North Korean and Western experts, published in the journal Science Advances in November 2016, suggested that the eruption of Mount Paektu in 946 A.D. might have ejected a greater amount of sulfur into the atmosphere than estimated by previous studies.
Experts consider Mount Paektu’s eruption in 946 A.D. as one of the most powerful in history. The eruption was so powerful that it threw ash as far as Japan, about 1,100 km away. The force of the eruption blasted a five-kilometer-wide caldera in the summit of the mountain.
According to Hammond, the devastation caused by the eruption of Mount Paektu in 946 A.D. was greater than historians thought. Hammond and his team estimated in their study that the amount of sulfur that the 946 A.D. eruption released into the atmosphere was greater that the amount released during the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815.
The Tambora eruption caused global temperatures to plummet, leading to a volcanic winter, the so-called “year without summer.” Scientists apparently missed the full global impact of the eruption of Mount Paektu in 946 A.D. because it occurred in winter.
The researchers warned that Mount Paektu could erupt once again.
“In contrast to earlier estimates, the 946 eruption did eject large volumes — up to 45 megatons – of sulfur into the atmosphere,” Hammond said, according to a release by the University of London. “This paper shows how important it is to study volcanoes no matter where they are.”
“I think the risk of a destructive eruption here is very real,” Stephen Grand, University of Texas seismologist, concluded.
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