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Where science and diplomacy meet

A dormant volcano, Mount Paektu, marks the frontier between North Korea and China. James Hammond, Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer discuss how a unique collaboration is providing insights into this enigmatic, restless giant

Words by Dr James O. S. Hammond
1 March 2021
Dr Amy Donovan
Prof. Clive Oppenheimer

The tranquil waters of Chonji (Heaven Lake) on the summit of Mount Paektu

Mount Paektu (known as Changbaishan in China) was responsible for one of the largest eruptions in history, known as the Millennium Eruption. This cataclysm, dated through a combination of radiocarbon and ice core evidence to late 946 CE, likely formed the 5-km-wide caldera that truncates the summit of the volcano. Enclosed below this rampart lie the tranquil waters of Chonji (Tianchi in Chinese), or ‘Heaven Lake’. This landscape is not only testament to dramatic volcanic events, it is, for Koreans, a place of great mythological significance. And, particularly for those living north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, it is the ‘sacred mountain of the revolution’. Visitors to Pyongyang will see it depicted in giant murals in the subway, at grand monuments, and as the background behind TV newsreaders.

An episode of volcanic unrest between 2002 and 2005 (see, ‘Vocanic Unrest’) reignited scientific interest in the volcano, not to mention the attention of government administrations, on both sides of the international border, concerned with the possibility of renewed activity. Additionally, Mount Paektu defies our conventional ideas that explain where volcanoes exist – it lies more than a thousand kilometres from the Pacific Plate boundary. Geoscientists from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have largely worked in isolation from the international community, but thanks in part to Mount Paektu’s emblematic cultural, scientific and political status, we have been able to initiate and build a unique collaboration involving geologists and seismologists from the UK, US, China and the DPRK.

Science and diplomacy
Our key scientific aims are to understand the origins, geological history and underlying structure of the volcano. The particular situation demands an approach that combines science and diplomacy in order to navigate the complexities and constraints of the regional and international geopolitics. Our collaboration has led to several achievements: the deployment of the first array of broadband seismometers in the DPRK; the first cross-border geophysical study; and secure dating of the Millennium Eruption, whose age was previously only known imprecisely. These achievements demonstrate that geoscience collaboration can be successful and durable even under circumstances and impositions of severe political strain.

Our work continues, with new projects including a Covid-19-delayed installation of a larger seismic network in the DPRK to complement China-led deployments across the border. An aim of this study is to understand the origins of the volcano, but the project is also an opportunity to investigate the volcanic history of the region beyond Mount Paektu. To facilitate management of this survey and build a platform for wider geoscience and environmental research in the DPRK, we have established the Mount Paektu Research Centre (MPRC) at Birkbeck, University of London. Through this, we hope to use our networks and experience to assist other teams interested in initiating research with DPRK scientists.

Mount Paektu
Mount Paektu is an intraplate volcano whose origins are enigmatic. The volcano is situated around 1,000 km north-west of the Japan Trench, and it belongs to a wider collection of volcanic centres on the Korean Peninsula and north-east China (Fig.1). These volcanoes are most commonly associated with the subducted Pacific Plate that has stalled at the base of the upper mantle. The so-called ‘big mantle wedge’ model proposes that water released at these depths drives mantle circulation and subsequent generation of partial melt. However, lower mantle upwellings or shallow processes have also been proposed to explain volcanism in this part of northeast Asia. What is clear is that the region has a relatively long history of volcanism, with Mount Paektu representing the latest of a series of volcanoes constructed over the last 20 million years. Early volcanism in the region is linked to the opening of the East/Japan Sea, with extensive basalt eruptions across the region.

Figure 1: Location of Mount Paektu (large red triangle) and other volcanoes

Following the cessation of rifting around 15 Ma, alkali basalt volcanism intensified and focused into the wider Paektu/Changbaishan region. Since 4.5 Ma, volcanism at Paektu/Changbaishan has largely gone through three stages, from basaltic eruptions forming a shield-like plateau to more silicic magmas (with some intermediate products) forming large volcanic centres with the most recent stage being dominated by explosive silicic eruptions, but with some small basaltic eruptions continuing throughout. A remarkable feature of the landscape of Mount Paektu on the DPRK-side of the border is its tundra-like appearance. Above the treeline, there are expanses of pumice that accumulated during the Millennium Eruption. Subfossil larch and pine trees, killed by the paroxysm in 946 CE, poke out of the pyroclastic deposits either side of the road leading up to the summit, which is a site of pilgrimage for North Koreans (Fig. 2). Historical texts and reports have been interpreted to indicate that the volcano erupted subsequently, in 1668, 1702 and 1903 CE, but these suggested episodes have not been clearly corroborated by the geological record.

Clive Oppenheimer and James Hammond examining the Millennium Eruption (946 CE) pumice deposits

Tree killed and buried by the 946 CE eruption

International collaboration
In the summer of 2011, DPRK scientists extended an invitation (via a journalist with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and an NGO, the Environmental Education Media Project, both based in Beijing), for volcanologists to visit DPRK to discuss monitoring of Mount Paektu. Two of us (CO and JH) responded, and travelled to Pyongyang in September 2011. We were told that we were the first western scientists to visit the volcano observatories.

Figure 3: Seismic activity of Changbaishan volcano from 1999 to 2011. (a) Monthly number of earthquakes. (b) A time series of the monthly maximum magnitude and cumulative seismic moment. (c) Earthquake swarms detected by mobile seismic campaign during the summers of 2002 and 2003. (d) Relocated earthquake hypocenter distribution at depths around 5 km. The shaded area in 2a and 2b represents the ‘active period’. (Republished with permission from Xu et al., (2012) Geophys. Res. Lett. 39(16); doi: 10.1029/2012GL052600)

Our hosts gave us an overview of their monitoring efforts, as well as a digest of past observations and the results of many summer field campaigns. We also enjoyed geological excursions on and around Mount Paektu that gave us a feel for the scale of the Millennium Eruption and the stratigraphy of its deposits. From this encounter, a day of presentations and many intense discussions emerged a set of critical questions concerning Mount Paektu (see, ‘Mount Paektu: Critical Questions).

With the enthusiasm of our new colleagues from Pyongyang to connect with the wider volcanological community, and the immense cultural significance of the volcano, we came to recognise an extraordinary opportunity for engagement with the DPRK in the domain of geoscience. A cornerstone of our approach would be dialogue and joint elaboration of the scientific research agenda. Accordingly, we sought and obtained the support of the AAAS, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, and the Royal Society of London. All three organisations take an interest in science diplomacy. We also secured the loan of a set of broadband seismometers by SEIS-UK, one of three nodes of the Natural Environment Research Council’s Geophysical Equipment Facility.

Since 2011, the Korean Peninsula has experienced considerable geopolitical flux. There have been changes in leadership of almost all countries in the region, multiple nuclear and missile tests, an increase in Republic of Korea–US military exercises and numerous summit meetings between leaders of the DPRK, the US, Republic of Korea and China, among others.

This dynamic situation has been accompanied by policy shifts and tightening of international sanctions imposed on the DPRK.

A joined-up approach
Working with the Royal Society of London and the AAAS provided channels to communicate our aims and objectives to relevant departments in the UK and US government administrations. Additionally, partnering with the Environmental Education Media Project in Beijing and the Pyongyang International Information New Technology and Economy Centre based in the DPRK capital enabled communication with colleagues in the Korean Earthquake Bureau, the State Academy of Sciences, and universities in Pyongyang. After a year and a half of discussion and negotiation, we obtained the export licenses necessary to bring the seismic equipment into the DPRK and to conduct field campaigns. These took place in the consecutive summers of 2013, 2014 and 2015. On the last of these missions, we decommissioned the seismic array and arranged for the return of the seismometers to the UK. We also brought the renowned film director Werner Herzog along with a film crew into the country for production of the 2016 Netflix film Into The Inferno.

With new projects underway, we continue to negotiate changing sanctions frameworks, and even to influence policy. For example, in 2016, new sanctions were imposed by the United Nations that stated ‘all Member States shall suspend scientific cooperation involving persons or groups officially sponsored by the DPRK’. This implied that our research should cease. However, through discussions with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London, we obtained exemptions from the United Nations, which allowed our project to continue. This emphasises a critical dimension to our practice of science diplomacy – the necessity to test and proactively respond to evolving regulatory frameworks in the service of scientific knowledge production.

We believe our approach and multi-actor engagement, with its cornerstone of a jointly agreed scientific agenda, underpins the durability and success of our collaboration. The DPRK continues to encourage international collaboration in environmental and other matters; a key aim of the MPRC is to share our experience with others who may be interested in scientific engagement with the country.

We continue to negotiate changing sanctions frameworks, and even to influence policy

Lessons learnt
The field campaigns from 2013 to 2015 allowed us to collect two years of digital seismograms (now publicly available on the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology database; www.iris.edu) and more than 100 geological samples of Millennium Eruption tephra, as well as older pyroclastic rocks and lavas. The seismic survey was designed to image the magmatic system beneath the volcano. Initially, we performed this using the DPRK data alone – work led by Ri Kyong-Song from the Earthquake Administration in Pyongyang during research visits to the UK. However, we recognised our interpretations were susceptible to spatial bias – the international border cuts right across the summit caldera of Mount Paektu and thus we only had observations from one segment of the volcano. More recently, thanks to a data-sharing agreement between MPRC and the China Earthquake Administration, we have carried out a wider survey. This yielded evidence for an extensive trans-crustal magmatic system with different storage regions throughout the crust that extends some 20 km laterally from the volcano.

Analysis of the geological samples has led to new work on the volatile budget of the Millennium Eruption and on the pre-eruptive storage conditions of the magma. This indicates that the comenditic magma was relatively shallow and cool, and that its eruption may have been triggered by an injection of trachytic melt from depth. Petrological work in progress further suggests a critical role played by a more mafic melt in the eruption, and is illuminating the magma mixing processes that occurred. Combined, the seismic and petrological data are allowing us to develop, test and refine a conceptual model of the magmatic system (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Conceptual model for the transcrustal magma plumbing system beneath Mount Paektu (taken from Hammond, J.O.S, et al. (2020) Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 21(1), p.e2019GC008461)

Figure 5: Left, radiocarbon (blue) and varve-based (yellow) age estimates for the Millennium Eruption. Red line indicates 946 CE. Right, Cross-section of sampled trunk showing selected ring numbers. Ring 172 contains evidence of the solar proton event dating Ring 1 to 946 CE. (Figure modified from Oppenheimer et al. (2017) Quat. Sci. Rev. 158, 164-171; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2016.12.024. Published under CC-BY licence)

Dating the Millennium Eruption
A further highlight of the project has been to date the Millennium Eruption precisely. Previously, many groups had used radiocarbon and varve dating to calculate the age of this colossal event. These estimates spanned at least the 10th century (Fig. 5), with the most precise dates pointing to eruption sometime between the 920s and 950s CE. These were based on ‘wiggle matching’, where 14C measurements made for multiple rings from an individual sample are matched to an international calibration curve (that is largely anchored in time by dendrochronology).

However, the discovery that an intense burst of cosmic radiation occurred in 774 CE (probably a solar proton event, whose magnitude would wreak havoc as ‘space weather’ today), suggested a means to date the eruption to the year. Colleagues at the China Earthquake Administration had collected a larch tree stem that was 264 years old when it was killed by pyroclastic flows during the Millennium Eruption. We realised it likely was alive at the time of the 774 event, and that annual-resolution radiocarbon measurements of the rings should indicate an anomaly due to the excess production of 14C in the atmosphere during the cosmic ray burst.

We struck lucky and, by counting rings to the bark, determined the tree was killed after the end of the growing season in 946 CE, but before the growing season of the following year. Inspection of a Greenland ice core record of sulfur and chlorine deposition enabled us to refine the dating. Miniscule ash particles from the Millennium Eruption had already been identified in the core along with the associated sulfate aerosol fallout. The timing of this anomaly in relation to the seasonal pattern of sea-salt deposition recorded in the ice narrowed the eruption window down to the last months of 946 CE.

With this information to hand, two historical texts now stood out, corroborating the date. The first is from the Korysa (history of the Kory dynasty), and relates to the year 946 CE:

“That year the sky rumbled and cried out, there was an amnesty.”

This was clearly a remarkable and unusual event to have been recorded and is suggestive of the explosive detonations associated with the eruption that were likely audible over a range of 1,000 km or more. The second text is from the Heungboksa Temple History (Nara, Japan) and is particularly interesting as it may exactly pinpoint the date of the eruption:

“White ash fell gently like snow.”
[on 3 November, 946 CE]

Millennium Eruption ash has been identified in cores taken from the bed of Lake Suigetsu, not far from Nara, which is not so close to the active volcanoes of Japan. Nor are any eruptions of Japanese volcanoes recorded at this time. It is entirely conceivable that this simple entry records the fallout from the Millennium Eruption – allowing for around 24 hours for the ash cloud to be transported above Nara, the eruption may have taken place on 2 November, 946 CE.

Geoscience and diplomacy
The MPRC provides a foundation to expand our collaborations, develop new projects and help others interested in scientific collaboration with the DPRK. For example, our new cross-border deployment of 55 seismometers around the volcano promises to lead to a better understanding of the origin of volcanism in the region and the relationship of Mount Paektu with nearby volcanic centres. It presents the first chance of a cross-border study of the 20-million-year history of volcanism in the region, with geological field campaigns that will involve project partners from both sides of the border. The research centre also provides a platform to bring DPRK and international scientists together to explore the latest research on volcanology. For example, we have organised and hosted workshops in Pyongyang, London and Beijing with scientists from the DPRK, China, Republic of Korea, UK, US and the EU. In 2021 we intend to run workshops on disaster risk reduction to develop understanding of the risks associated with geological hazards in DPRK.

Geological hazards do not suddenly dissipate at international borders. While this presents numerous challenges for operational monitoring, hazard and risk assessment and fundamental research, our project demonstrates that international dimensions to geohazard assessments, and in this case geo-heritage, create a new space for collaboration. Robust evaluations of geohazards and effective management of their associated risks is in everyone’s interest – this requires a joined-up and interdisciplinary approach that pools scientific resources between countries.

The urgency of understanding geohazards and risks presents opportunities for engagement in the face of severe intergovernmental strain, as well as a chance to build trust and understanding, and to test local and international regulations so that future, more sensitive projects can benefit and serve populations – even in some of the most politically sensitive corners of the Earth.

Volcanic unrest
In 2002, the volcano observatories in DPRK and China recorded increased seismicity, along with ground deformation and changes in volcanic gas emissions (Fig. 3). Earthquake event rates increased by two orders of magnitude with hypocentres located in the shallow crust. Modelling of ground deformation suggested a source of inflation at 2-6 km depth beneath the summit. Increases in helium and hydrogen abundances in hydrothermal discharge rose sharply in 2003 and remained elevated. These were accompanied by an increase in the proportion of primordial helium, interpreted as a signature of magmatic contribution. In China, the alert level was raised and there was considerable public anxiety. Despite a return to baseline activity in 2005, operational surveillance of Mount Paektu continues and it remains a focus of volcanic risk assessment and management in both China and DPRK.

Mount Paektu: critical questions
• What is the origin of the volcano?
• What were the timings and nature of past eruptions?
• What triggered past eruptions and episodes of unrest?
• What is the current state of the magmatic system beneath the volcano?
• What hazards and associated risks does the volcano present?

• Dr. James O. S. Hammond Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Birkbeck, University of London james.hammond@bbk.ac.uk @joshammond
• Dr. Amy Donovan Department of Geography, University of Cambridge ard31@cam.ac.uk @dramydonovan
• Prof. Clive Oppenheimer Department of Geography, University of Cambridge co200@cam.ac.uk @ultraplinian

Further reading
• Donovan, A. & Oppenheimer, C., 2019. Volcanoes on borders: a scientific and (geo) political challenge. Bulletin of Volcanology 81(5), 31; https://doi.org/10.1007/s00445-019-1291-z
• Hammond, J.O.S. (2016) Understanding volcanoes in isolated locations: engaging diplomacy for science. Science & Diplomacy 5(1);https://www.sciencediplomacy.org/sites/default/files/understanding_volcanoes_in_isolated_locations_science__diplomacy.pdf
• Hammond, J.O. et al. (2020) Distribution of partial melt beneath Changbaishan/Paektu volcano, China/Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 21(1), p.e2019GC008461; https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GC008461
• Iacovino, K. et al. (2016) Quantifying gas emissions from the “Millennium Eruption” of Paektu volcano, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea/China. Science Advances 2(11), p.e1600913.; https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1600913
• Oppenheimer, C. et al. (2017) Multi-proxy dating the ‘Millennium Eruption’of Changbaishan to late 946 CE. Quaternary Science Reviews 158, 164-171; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2016.12.024
• Pan, B. et al. (2017) The VEI-7 Millennium eruption, Changbaishan-Tianchi volcano, China/DPRK: New field, petrological, and chemical constraints on stratigraphy, volcanology, and magma dynamics. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 343, 45-59; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2017.05.029
• Royal Society (2010) New frontiers in science diplomacy: navigating the changing balance of power. RS Policy document 01/10; https://royalsociety.org/~/media/royal_society_content/policy/publications/2010/4294969468.pdf
• Stone, R. (2011) Vigil at North Koreas Mount Doom. Science 334, 584-588; https://doi.org/10.1126/science.334.6056.584
• Stone, R. (2013) Sizing up a slumbering giant. Science 341, 1060-1061; https://doi.org/10.1126/science.341.6150.1060
• Tao, K. et al. (2018) Seismic structure of the upper mantle beneath eastern Asia from full waveform seismic tomography. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 19(8), 2732-2763; https://doi.org/10.1029/2018GC007460
• Xu, J. et al. (2012) Recent unrest of Changbaishan volcano, northeast China: A precursor of a future eruption? Geophysical Research Letters 39(16); https://doi.org/10.1029/2012GL052600
• Zhao, D. et al. (2009) Seismic image and origin of the Changbai intraplate volcano in East Asia: role of big mantle wedge above the stagnant Pacific slab. Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors 173(3-4), 197-206; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pepi.2008.11.009

• Netflix’s Into the Inferno: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80066073

• James Hammond’s November 2020 GSL Public Lecture “Engaging geoscience for diplomacy–understanding Paektu volcano, North Korea” can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwQMi2jJz5E


This feature links to the Sciencesnapshot Behind the scenes at Mount Paektu


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