This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Monday, November 7, 2011

North Korea's Mountain of Doom! Volcanoes and international science

View into the crater of Mount Paektu, a ka Changbai,
from the North Korean side. The staircase is several hundred
meters long, descending to a unique research base.
Photo by R. Stone/Science magazine
Rarely does an article in the staid peer review journal, Science, cause me to gasp! But a "NewsFocus" article*** in this week's issue by Richard Stone is so well written and informative, and the many themes woven through it are so impressive, that it did make me gasp!  It appeared this week--an intriguing description of an international collaboration working to determine the eruption potential, and schedule, for Mount Paektu, North Korea. North Korea and active volcanoes? China and active volcanoes? A shared active volcano on their border? A volcano that has at least two names and challenged the prestigious journal to figure out whether to call it by its Chinese name or its North Korean name? (The volcano ruled--two thirds of it is in China, so it's referred to in this article by its Chinese name, Changbai.)

From a combination of historical records and ash layers, it appears that Changbai wakes up every 100 years or so, the last time in 1903. Rather alarmingly, about 1000 years ago, the volcano had an eruption that was one of the largest of the past few thousand years, rivaling the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia. It spread ash over 33,000 square kilometers of northeast China and Korea, and dumped 5 centimeters of ash on Japan. (So that this post is not taken as being alarmist, there is no indication that an eruption is imminent.) I'm not going to dwell on the volcanology here, perhaps at a later date. In a nutshell, on a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 8, only a few 7's have occurred in the last 11,500 years, and the eruption of Changbai 1000 years ago was one of them. It erupted nearly 100 cubic kilometers of ash.

I think that the importance of this Science article is the spotlight that it shines on science as a way to transcend political and philosophical borders.  The North Koreans and Chinese have already established a collaboration to monitor this dangerous volcano, and in September, they brought in two westerner geologists from the U.K. to visit the site. They are James Hammond from Imperial College, and Clive Oppenheimer from Cambridge. They were accompanied by Richard Stone, the author of the article. This "unprecedented encounter was facilitated by two nongovernmental organizations: Pyongyang International Information Center on New Technology and Economy, or PIINTEC, based in Pyongyang, and the Environmental Education Media Project in Beijing." The three were impressed with the North Korean scientists and facilities, and with the budding collegiality--  Chinese scientists may be doing research at Paektu in North Vietnam next summer. The deputy director general of DPRK's Earthquake Administration has said "we welcome scientists with open arms" (to build up the capability to monitor the volcano and forecast eruption scenarios." Hats off to all who made this work, including Hans-Ulrich Schmincke who managed to get in there in 1993!

Over the past centuries, there have been only a few ways to transcend the political and military tensions that are all to prevalent and dangerous in the world. They have been (1) arts and culture; (2) humanitarian aid; and (3) science, particularly in the area of natural hazards.  For another program, very relevant to "Mount Doom", take a look at Cities on Volcanoes, a Commission of the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI).

***Vigil at North Korea's Mount Doom, by Richard Stone, Science, 334, November 4, 2011, pp. 584-588.

No comments: