Possible Volcanic Activity On Mount Paektu Forces North Korea To Open Its Borders For Scientists

First Posted: Apr 19, 2016 05:00 AM EDT

Between China and North Korea is a 9,000-foot volcano that, like most of the Changbai mountains along the border, remains a mystery.

However, in the early 2000s, the Mount Paektu (also known as Baekdu) started rumbling, and with its previous eruption being one of the biggest in the last 1,000 years, the North Korean government took an unprecedented step to keep its people safe: it asked for help from the modern world.

The volcano's last eruption, said to have occurred somewhere around 946 AD, was one of the largest-known volcanic eruptions in the world. The Washington Post noted that the plumes of volcanic material blanketed the nearby landscape with snow-white ash for hundreds of miles.

Even though North Korea is finally opening its borders for scientists to study the massive volcano, it will still take years -- and intense scientific diplomacy -- to get them to the top of Mount Paektu and map up the layers of rock and magma underneath the surface. An international team of researchers from four countries -- North Korea, China, United States, and Britain -- have studied parts of the volcano and published their first ever survey in Science Advances.

Their findings include the lack of magma near the surface, which means that a catastrophic eruption is not yet near. However, they did find a layer of partially melted rock that they say needs to be studied more.

The mystery of Mount Paektu doesn't lie only in the seclusion of North Korea -- the geological forces that created it are as elusive, considerig that unlike other volcanoes, it is parked far from a tectonic plates -- where most of them tend to spring up due to collisions.

Paektu, on the other hand, may have formed due to a hot spot in the mantle, where a thick layer of hot rock churns below the surface. While that is a workable theory, it can also be formed by forces that need to be further investigated. If the volcano will erupt the same way it did in the past, James Gill, a professor from the University of California in Santa Cruz noted that Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese economies will all suffer.

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