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Volcanological and geophysical research on Paektu volcano, Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Volcanological and geophysical research on Paektu volcano, Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Project summary

Mount Paektu (aka Paektusan, Changbaishan, Changbai, Baitoushan, Baekdu and Baegdu!) is a fascinating volcano straddling the border between DPRK (North Korea) and China. In fact the international frontier cuts right through the nearly 6-km-diameter summit crater, at an altitude of some 2700 m. It is curious in that its origins and tectonic associations remain unclear – it is located more than 1300 km away from the Japanese trench. It is also the site of one of the largest eruptions of the past few millennia – on a par with Santorini's Minoan eruption and the 1815 outburst of Tambora on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. The so-called "Millennium eruption" probably occurred in the 10th century CE, according to radiocarbon evidence and ash fallout covered much of the Korean peninsula, reaching as far as northern Japan (Horn and Schmincke, 2000).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Descending into the summit crater of Paektu towards Lake Chon

Following an initial visit to Pyongyang and Mt. Paetku in September 2011 by a small team that included James Hammond and Clive Oppenheimer, we have been developing an ambitious project with several collaborating organisations, and supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, to carry out field-based geophysical and volcanological studies of the volcano on the DPRK side of the border. This work stems in part from heightened interest in the volcano following episodes of increased seismicity beneath the volcano that was detected a decade ago. The aims include imaging of the structure beneath the volcano to identify where magma is stored, and detailed studies of pumice samples to improve our understanding of the Millennium eruption.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Petrified larch killed by burial in tephra during the Millennium Eruption

Figure 3

Figure 3. Kim Myong Sung, Director of the Volcanological Institute of the DPRK Earthquake Administration

Figure 4

Figure 4. Samjiyŏn Volcano Observatory

Figure 5

Figure 5. Finale of arirang performance in Pyongyang: note picture of Mt. Paektu on the upper screen

Further reading

  • Horn and Schmincke, 2000,
  • Stone, 2011,

Project team