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Only a Rumbling Volcano Could Make North Korea and the West Play Nice

The effort has since yielded tantalizing insights into the slumbering giant that once blanketed the Korean Peninsula in an avalanche of ash.

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Clive Oppenheimer, a Briton, far right, with a North Korean colleague Kim Ju Song, center, and a North Korean student. Credit Kayla Iacovino

Mount Paektu is sacred to the North Korean people. They valorize it as the site where Kim Il Sung, the founding father of modern North Korea, used guerrilla tactics to fight the Japanese during World War II, and as the supposed birthplace of his son, Kim Jong-il, who succeeded him as the country’s leader.

North Koreans make pilgrimages to the mountain, and students march up its summit singing songs. It is an important fixture in their everyday lives, visible in their paintings and propaganda. Even kindergartners sing the song “Let’s Go to Mount Paektu.”

“That cultural significance explains part of the motivation for the scientists there to understand the volcano,” said Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge who was part of the team. “They are concerned about the cultural impact that a future large eruption would have.”

That willingness to work helped the team collect vital information about the volcano’s inner workings. But the collaboration was not without its difficulties.

“Typically as a geologist you want to walk around and explore, and you could imagine in North Korea that can be something of a challenge,” said James Hammond, a geophysicist at Birkbeck, University of London, who participated in the research. “You can’t just walk off and go wherever you want to. But with some communication and scientific argument, everything we wanted to do, we got.”

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A bronze statue of Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea, who fought the Japanese in World War II on Mount Paektu. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

They communicated through translators who accompanied them throughout the trip. One challenge was the scientific gap between the two groups.

Barred from attending conferences outside their country and denied access to most scientific literature, the North Koreans had been isolated from the last 20 years of debate in volcanology and geophysics. But they were eager to learn.

(Efforts to contact the researchers from the Earthquake Administration and the State Academy of Science through North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations were not successful.)

One of the questions that the team set out to answer was how much gas the Millennium Eruption sent into the sky, and whether the event affected the climate in the Northern Hemisphere.

Large eruptions can release huge clouds of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. There, the sulfur gas transforms into a sulfate aerosol that reflects sunlight and cools the planet. The famous modern example was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which ejected so much volcanic dust and rock into the stratosphere it caused what is known as “the year without summer.”

Blizzards hit New York in June, and frost wreaked havoc on crops in New England in July. That eruption released an estimated 28 megatons of sulfur.

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A handout photo from North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency showing Kim Jong Un, the country’s current leader, standing on the summit of Mount Paektu. Credit Kcna/Reuters

When the sulfur falls back to the ground, it can get trapped and preserved in polar ice. Previous studies of ice cores from Greenland dated to A.D. 946, when the Millennium Eruption occurred, had low levels of sulfur, suggesting that the eruption emitted a small amount of gas and did not have strong effects on the climate.

But the team thought the ice core estimates might have been low and wanted to test for sulfur traces within the white pumice that came from the actual eruption and was now scattered across the volcano.

By analyzing the white pumice for geochemical clues, the team found that the Millennium Eruption actually emitted a large amount of sulfur into the atmosphere: an estimated 45 megatons. That is about 20 times what previous estimates had suggested, and about 1.5 times what was emitted by Mount Tambora.

“This eruption had much more gas than we thought it did in the past,” said Kayla Iacovino, a volcanologist at Arizona State University and lead author on the team’s most recent paper. “It had enough gas to place it as one of the largest gas-emitting volcanoes in human history.”

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Preparing samples of volcanic material from Mount Paektu for lab analysis. Credit Kayla Iacovino

With that information, Dr. Iacovino said that the gas from the Millennium Eruption had the potential to affect the climate. But that does not mean that it did. Several factors, like the mountain’s high latitude and the time of year it erupted, could also have influenced its climate effects. The team published its findings last month in the journal Science Advances.

Marc-Antoine Longpré, a volcanologist at Queens College in New York who was not involved in the research, said the paper “offers a fresh and improved view on this enigmatic volcanic event.”

He said that the authors’ estimates for sulfur emissions were most likely much closer to the true emissions from the Millennium Eruption than previous studies provided. But he added that the finding required further investigation.

Dr. Iacovino said that the next step to forecasting any future eruptions would be continued monitoring.

“We were able to make this collaboration supersuccessful in no small part thanks to the North Korean government,” she said. She hopes the results from their work with the North Koreans will lead to further research.

“If we can understand the volcano’s history, what the volcano is capable of, only then can we start to make predictions of what it might do in the future.”

Source: NYT > World

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