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Pioneering study uncovers significant molten rock beneath North Korean volcano

Collaborative research study may hold the key to one of the largest historical eruptions on record

Mt. Paektu

Newly-published research co-authored by a Birkbeck geophysicist has furthered our understanding of the internal structure of an enigmatic volcano on the border of North Korea and China.

Dr James Hammond of Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science and a team of scientists from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the UK, US and an NGO based in China have seismically imaged beneath the crust of Mount Paektu (also known as Changbaishan) on the border of the DPRK and China.

In a paper published today (15 April 2016) in Science Advances Dr Hammond and his colleagues show seismic data that reveal a large area of rock, molten rock and crystals, known as partial melt, underneath the volcano. This may be associated with a marked increase in earthquake activity and emission of volcanic gases during the early 2000s, as well as holding the key to what caused Mt. Paektu to erupt in circa 946 AD in one of the largest historical eruptions on record.

Until now, little was known about the magma storage beneath the volcano, the crust thickness and the rock composition. Using sophisticated and sensitive equipment to record earthquakes — the first deployment of such equipment within the DPRK – the team have shown that the Earth’s crust beneath the volcano has been modified by the 3.5 million-year history of volcanism in the area, creating an area of partial melt at least 20km wide, although the exact size and volume of the area is still unknown.

Dr Hammond said: “Volcanic eruptions, particularly those from volcanoes the size of Mt. Paektu, can have impacts far beyond their immediate surroundings. With increasing development and globalisation, our vulnerability to volcanic hazards is increasing. Therefore, we must give attention to understanding volcanoes, no matter where they are.

“Our data indicate that the significant molten rock is present in the crust beneath Mt. Paektu.  It is clear that further research into the volcano’s underlying structure is important to understand its recent and likely future activity.”

The article, ‘Evidence for partial melt in the crust beneath Mt. Paektu (Changbaishan), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (China)’ is published today (15 April) in Science Advances.

Dr Hammond recently published an article about scientific diplomacy and the challenges of working in areas where there are strained relationships within the international community.

Listen to Dr Hammond speak about the scientific and diplomatic considerations of conducting this research (starts 11min 28 secs in).

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