Seeker Archives

N. Korea Lets in Westerners to Study Huge Volcano

North Korean and western researchers are working together to study a volcano that can send ash as far as Japan. Continue reading →

North Korea, whose repressive totalitarian regime habitually issues bellicose threats to other countries and prides itself on its political ideology of juche, or self-reliance, has long been one of the most isolated nations on the planet.

It turns out, though, that that North Korea's paranoia about the outside world is trumped by an even greater concern about an actual menace - Mount Paektu, a massive 9,000-foot-tall volcano that sits on the hermit nation's border with China. In a rare display of openness, the North Korean regime has allowed western scientists to join its own researchers and install sensing instruments on the volcano.

NEWS: Mystery of Volcano Lightning Explained

In an article in Science Advances - one of the few ever published in the west with a North Korean lead author - the scientists reveal their discovery that Paektu has a soft core, composed of melted crust, and that it's likely fed by a complex magma reservoir.

But so far, the scientists haven't been able to come up with an explanation for how the volcano came to exist in its particular location. It lies hundreds of miles west of the so-called Ring of Fire, where many of the planet's biggest volcanoes have been created by the collision of tectonic plates, according to an accompanying story in Science magazine.

Back in the early 2000s, earthquake swarms and ground swelling in the area raised North Korean worries that the long-dormant volcano might erupt as massively as it did back in 946 AD, when it flung hot rocks and debris for hundreds of miles, and spewed ash in into the atmosphere that reach Japan. That eventually prompted the regime to invite volcano experts from the United States and Great Britain to study Paektu.

NEWS: Two Mexican Volcanoes are Erupting

Due to international sanctions against North Korea and the reclusive regime's own bureaucracy, however, it took until 2013 for the scientific team to be able to import needed equipment, according to an account in the Christian Science Monitor. One sensing device that the scientists tried to bring in was barred by North Korean officials, because the same technology was used by militaries to track submarines.

Eventually, though, the scientists were able to install a line of six seismometers on Paektu, and they spent two years recording motions beneath the surface that helped scientists to map the volcano's structure.

South Korean scientists have expressed concern over the years that blasts at a nuclear test site 60 miles away from the volcano might trigger an eruption, The Independent reported.

Alaska Volcano Spews Ash 20,000 Feet Into Air

That Paektu would force the North Korean regime into cooperating with western scientists is an odd irony. The mountain has an iconic role in the nationalist mythology fostered by North Korea's regime, which claims that Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korean communism, made his headquarters there in a secret camp in the 1930s and 1940s. A house in which he supposedly resided is maintained as a patriotic shrine for North Koreans today.

A state-controlled newspaper reported that current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the founder's grandson, scaled the volcano in 2015, and published a photo of him supposedly standing on top of it.

North Korea is so secretive that many volcanologists weren't even aware that the massive volcano existed, according to Wired.

Mount Paektu, the massive volcano that is North Korea’s tallest mountain, is shown in this NASA satellite image.

There are about 1,500 active volcanoes on our planet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, although only about a third of them have erupted during recorded history. Here are some that potentially could pose a threat to major inhabited areas.   Above, Italy's Mount Vesuvius was responsible for perhaps the most famous volcanic disaster in history in 79 A.D., which destroyed the Roman settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Today, it might pose an even bigger threat to the modern city of Naples, which is less than 6 miles away.

Earth Shots: Must-See Planet Pics (July 6)

Mount St. Helens, which exploded catastrophically in 1980, could reawaken violently and spew a 30,000-foot plume that would ground air traffic, wreak havoc upon farming, water and power, and dump ash upon Portland and Seattle.

Amazing Nature Photos That Will Blow Your Mind And Make You Want To Save The Planet

In the centuries before the Spanish colonization of Mexico in the 1500s, Popocatepetl erupted and buried Aztec pyramids in lava. It reawakened in 1994, and could pose a hazard to 25 million people who live in Mexico City and other communities in the region.  

The Most Dangerous Roads On The Planet: Photos

Mt. Fuji in Japan hasn't erupted in the past 300 years, which has led scientists to warn that it is overdue. The volcano is just 70 miles from Tokyo, and a study in the mid-2000s estimated that a major eruption could endanger 30 million people and cause $21 billion in property damage.

Eruption Of Iceland's Grimsvotn Volcano : Photos

Iceland's Laki isn't close to a major population center. But the sulfur haze that it would spew might alter Europe's climate, blocking sunlight and destroying agricultural harvests.

Mt. Sinabung Erupts; Villagers Flee: Photos

Nevada del Ruiz in Colombia is the highest and northernmost active volcano in that country. It erupted catastrophically in 1985, killing an estimated 23,000 people, and it's estimated that an eruption today could put 500,000 inhabitants of the region at risk.

Volcano In Ecuador Spews Lava And Ash: Photos

Nyirangongo towers over the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the city of Goma -- population 1 million -- at its base. It's one of the least-studied volcanoes in the world, which increases anxiety about what will happen if it eventually erupts.

Astronaut Captures 2 Volcanoes In Single Orbit

The Indonesian volcano Merapi lies just 20 miles away from Yogyakarta, a city of 500,000 residents. It's in a country where 120 million people live within the shadows of 30 volcanoes.

Kilauea Volcano's Lava Lake Overflows