One of today’s most dangerous volcanoes is one you’ve probably never heard about. The North Koreans call it Paektu; the Chinese call it Changbai. In a headline Friday, Science called it Mount Doom.
The picturesque, lake-topped peak, which straddles the border between North Korea and China, “explodes to life every 100 years or so, the last time in 1903,” reports Science’s Richard Stone, who visited Mount Doom in September with two volcanologists from the U.K.
The volcano’s most dramatic eruption rivaled the famous 1815 Tambora eruption in Indonesia, Stone writes, and it could unleash more of the same:
If a similar eruption occurred today, 100,000 people would be vulnerable to avalanches of superheated gas, rock and ash called pyroclastic flows. Even a much smaller eruption could catastrophically drain the deep lake that now sits atop the mountain. Mixed with rocks, mud and vegetation, all that water would become a soupy stew called a lahar, which would hurtle down the lake’s single outlet, a narrow valley on the Chinese side where 60,000 people reside.
University of Oregon supervolcano expert Ilya Bindeman has had his eye on Changbai-Paektu for some time. “It’s not quite a supervolcano, but close,” he told Discovery News. Like Tambora, Changbai-Paektu is a 7 on the scale of known eruptions; a true supervolcano is an 8. Bindeman says only five regions have experienced supereruptions in the past two million years: Yellowstone and Long Valley in the western U.S., Toba in Sumatra, Taupo in New Zealand and Kamchatka in Russia, which Bindeman and his colleagues only recently discovered.
In recent months, Changbai-Paektu has show signs of restlessness—elevated temperatures of hot springs on its flanks, for example—but most scientists apparently agree that no magma is rising to the surface. So, an eruption there is not imminent. But scientists on both sides of the border are scrambling to predict when the sleeping giant will awaken.
Making the volcano all the more fascinating are Stone’s firsthand descriptions of the mountain, scientists and observatories up close. Stone and his companions were the first westerners ever to visit the field stations in North Korea; that part of the volcano had been largely off limits to foreigners and modern equipment until now.
The two volcanologists, James Hammond of Imperial College, London, and Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge, were there to demonstrate a new digital broadband seismometer, an instrument that can track small earthquakes, which become more frequent when an eruption is at hand.
An opportunity to do science like this in North Korea, particularly with an instrument that can pick up the rumble of nuclear detonations, is a big deal. Stone describes one reason for North Korea’s sensitivity about seismic measurements:
The story’s headline, Vigil at Mount Doom, calls to mind another intrepid trio and their treacherous trek through Mordor, but Stone never gives in to that narrative temptation. Rather he tells a direct and informative tale of North Korea’s and China’s mutual desire and ambitious efforts to understand this beast slumbering between them.
Both the volcano and the story are well worth a closer look.
A crater lake at Tianchi, atop Changbai-Paektu volcano. (Wikimedia Commons)