Sizing Up a Slumbering Giant

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Science  06 Sep 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6150, pp. 1060-1061
DOI: 10.1126/science.341.6150.1060

A thousand years ago, Mount Paektu unleashed one of the biggest eruptions in recent history. An unusual collaboration aims to learn why the volcano is so potent.

On the prowl.

Researchers on last month's expedition searched for rocks that could shed light on past eruptions.


People in the hamlet of Sin Mu Song in northwestern North Korea had never laid eyes on a Westerner before James Hammond set to work in a nearby potato field last month. With North Korean colleagues, the seismologist from Imperial College London installed a broadband seismometer in an underground concrete shelter. Afterward, he sampled the local tobacco, rolled in a piece of Korean newspaper. "It was really smooth," he says, like "a pretty nice cigar."

Hammond had reason to celebrate. He and two U.K.-based colleagues had just completed the first season of a trailblazing project to assess the eruption history, underlying structure, and potential for future unrest at Mount Paektu, a volcano straddling the border between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and China. "We felt very privileged," says Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.


Geologist Kim Ju Song (foreground) and a colleague examine Millennium Eruption deposits on Paektu's eastern flank.


Paektu is quiet now, but it has a fearsome past. In the middle of the 10th century C.E., the volcano, called Changbai in China, uncorked the Millennium Eruption, one of the largest of the past 10,000 years. A decade ago, swarms of small tremors at the volcano set Chinese and Korean authorities on edge, prompting both nations to step up monitoring. The geological spasms subsided, but concerns that Paektu may be poised to blow again have opened the door to one of the first substantive scientific collaborations between DPRK and the West.

Getting the remarkable enterprise off the ground wasn't easy. It took 2 years to win permissions from the U.K. and U.S. governments to ship crucial instruments to North Korea and the last-minute intervention of the United Kingdom's Royal Society to sign agreements with DPRK organizations that allowed fieldwork to proceed. But as Martyn Poliakoff, foreign secretary of the Royal Society, puts it, "We felt it was something that is well worth doing."

A scarred land

The week of fieldwork "really was spectacular," says Hammond, who installed six broadband seismometers on a line running east from the volcano. The instruments will listen for any stirring beneath Paektu. They will also register seismic waves from across the globe as they ripple through Paektu's plumbing, allowing Hammond and company to image its magma chamber and surrounding rock.

While Hammond set to work, Oppenheimer and his graduate student, Kayla Iacovino, a U.S. citizen, collected samples, mostly pumice, that should reveal new details about the sequence of events during the Millennium Eruption and recent, smaller eruptions.

The scars from the ancient explosion are still visible. The blast heaped ash and pumice on 33,000 square kilometers of northeast China and Korea, charring and entombing a thick forest and creating a barren landscape that to this day is largely treeless. Gargantuan pyroclastic flows—avalanches of superheated gas and debris—seared whole valleys and lined their walls with otherworldly ignimbrite rock tubes. In recent history, only the 1815 Tambora eruption in Indonesia—responsible for the "year without a summer"—has rivaled it.

Paektu's ferocity is an enigma. It lies hundreds of kilometers west of the Ring of Fire, where colliding tectonic plates along the edge of the Pacific Basin fuel many of the world's most powerful volcanoes. One possible explanation for its potency is water squeezed from minerals in the subducting Pacific Plate, 600 kilometers below the volcano. Adding water to hot mantle rock can cause it to melt, creating a magma supply.

But the chemistry of Paektu's pumice and other data cast doubt on that explanation, says James Gill, a volcanologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has conducted fieldwork on the Chinese side of the volcano since 1990.

Gill sees signs that the volcano is instead stoked by a mantle plume—a deep-rooted conduit that carries magma from the lower mantle to the surface. Backing that idea are unpublished data from a seismic array in China showing a "hole" in the subduction slab under Paektu. But other mantle processes may also be at play, and research on the volcano's Chinese flanks has failed to settle the question.

That's why Oppenheimer and Hammond seized an opportunity that arose 2 years ago (Science, 4 November 2011, p. 584). The Pyongyang International Information Center on New Technology and Economy, or PIINTEC, a nongovernment organization, had reached out to Oppenheimer, a specialist on volcanic gases and author of a popular textbook, proposing a collaborative project. He roped in Hammond, a comrade in arms from a volcanological project in the blazing hot outback of Eritrea.

North Korea offered different challenges. The first was funding. Hammond got the big-ticket items for free: The U.K. Natural Environment Research Council's Geophysical Equipment Facility loaned the seismometers. The Korean Earthquake Bureau (KEB) in Pyongyang, which is operating the array, agreed to periodically download data onto hard disks and send them to the Environmental Education Media Project, a nonprofit organization in Beijing that serves as a liaison between North Korea and the West. It will forward the data to Hammond.

To house the seismometers, KEB staff members in recent months erected concrete huts at three of their field stations, including one beside the picturesque caldera lake, Lake Chon. Farther out from Paektu, KEB built bunkers for instruments in three villages, including one in the potato field at Sin Mu Song, where residents have promised to keep an eye on the equipment to deter vandals.

Funding for station construction, maintenance, and logistics came from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation in Washington, D.C., via a grant to AAAS, Science's publisher. Both organizations are assiduously reaching out to scientists in nations having difficult relations with the United States. The project is off to a great start, says Norman Neureiter, senior adviser to AAAS's Center for Science Diplomacy. "Cooperation based on a real desire to get the job done has been excellent on both sides," he says.

U.N. and U.S. export controls and sanctions on North Korea posed a tougher challenge. They prohibit a long list of instruments and devices, including ones as simple as thumb drives and cameras, from being shipped or carried into the country, even for temporary, personal use. AAAS spent months working with the U.S. State Department and the Commerce Department to land an export license for the project. The U.K. government's review of a separate license application took even longer, with approval coming just days before the seismometers had to be put on a plane for Pyongyang. "Everybody behaved sensibly and didn't get into a panic," Poliakoff says.

Another challenge was fulf illing the North Koreans' desire for legal documents spelling out the research plan and each party's responsibilities. It was too complicated for KEB and PIINTEC to sign such a document with a U.S. organization, but the Royal Society came to the rescue.

Delving deeper

Once in North Korea, Oppenheimer and Iacovino spent several days collecting samples at favorite outcrops of senior KEB geologist Kim Ju Song and his colleagues in the bureau and the DPRK Academy of Sciences. A highlight was excavating at the base of a 10-meter-thick blanket of pumice from the Millennium Eruption. "It's always interesting to see what was on the ground immediately before a big eruption," Oppenheimer says. Pollen, for instance, can reveal the season that the ash fell. And deposits at the bottom of the heap show how the eruption began to unfold—information that could help researchers assess the hazards of a modern-day Millennium-scale eruption.

Oppenheimer and Iacovino also plan to study volatiles trapped within crystals in the pumice, which can hold clues to the types and amounts of gases released. Such details could explain why the Millennium Eruption, unlike other eruptions on that scale, did not cool Earth's climate—a curious fact that volcanologist Xu Jiandong of the China Earthquake Administration in Beijing and his colleagues reported in January in Geophysical Research Letters.

The black pumice at the top of the pile presents its own mystery: Was it deposited by pyroclastic flows during the Millennium Eruption, or by one of a handful of later blasts known from historical records? Characterizing these eruptions, including the most recent in 1903, can reveal how Paektu's plumbing has changed since the Millennium Eruption. Oppenheimer and Iacovino also took a motorboat out on Lake Chon to observe volcanic gases bubbling to the surface. They intend to return next summer to collect and analyze the gases, which could hold clues to the viscosity of the magma. More viscous magma would take higher pressure to eject, raising the odds of a more powerful eruption.

In future expeditions, the team hopes to image the volcano's magma chambers with magnetotelluric sensors, which map subsurface variations in conductivity. They also hope to host Korean colleagues in the United Kingdom, for training in volcano monitoring and to collaborate on analyses of rock samples and data interpretation. Publications arising from the fieldwork will surely have DPRK co-authors, Oppenheimer says. Hammond envisions a more extensive seismometer array. But a full picture of the mountain's insides will also require data from stations across the border in China, Gill says—which means more science diplomacy.

Still, by simply beating the odds and nurturing mutual respect, last month's expedition has revealed possibilities for scientific cooperation hitherto unimaginable—reason enough for the scientists and their backers to break out the cigars.

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