Of Eruptions and Men: Science Diplomacy at North Korea’s Active Volcano

By | May 08, 2014 | No Comments

Kayla and Colleagues | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Kayla and Colleagues | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

While a great deal of time and effort is spent extracting the charismatic and narrative value from other local geographies, ultimately there is still only one principle and pre-eminent topographic feature in North Korea. Mt. Baekdu, a spiritual and political landscape whose importance is shared across borders by both Korea(s) and the Peoples’ Republic of China, has been constructed into the locus and fulcrum of Kimist authority and legitimacy. Baekdu’s slopes were host to both pre-Liberation narratives of anti-Japanese struggle and elements of the North’s contemporary familial mythos. However, below the mountain’s flanks and the crater lakes’ mythic waters a deeper, more ancient narrative flows: Baekdu as eruptive volcanic monolith, an altogether more pyroclastic, destructive beast. Along with narratives of charismatic, political and theatric landscape Sino-NK has considered the prospect of engagement derived from developmental or scientific diplomacy, how exciting that both themes should cross paths at Baekdu!

It is with great pleasure that Sino-NK introduces a scholar at these crossroads: Dr. Kayla Iacovino, newly minted PhD from the University of Cambridge and now about to take up a post doctoral position at the United States Geological Survey’s Volcanoes Programme at Menlo Park California, participated in a truly ground breaking moment of scientific and academic connection when North Korean volcanologists first engaged with those from external nations. Dr. Iacovino recounts their meeting on holy topographic ground. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Of Eruptions and Men: Science Diplomacy at North Korea’s Active Volcano

by Kayla Iacovino

Baekdu Mountain (Mt. Baekdu) is a truly iconic Korean landmark. Hailed by the Koreans as their place of ancestral origin, the 2,700 m-high mountain whose summit is bisected by the China-DPRK geopolitical border has been considered sacred throughout the region for generations. The high regard Koreans carry for Baekdu is not surprising when you consider its enormous beauty and its fertile lands where wild blueberries flourish in the summertime. But what lies beneath?

An Eruptive Narrative | What many people do not realize about the famous landmass is that Baekdu is a gigantic volcano—and it is still active. Only 1,000 years ago, Baekdu exploded, producing one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history. The eruption sent volcanic ash 29 km high into the stratosphere; ash which then rained down on cities as far away as Japan. The forest that once covered the peak was wiped out in the initial blast (the forest still has not fully recovered) and pyroclastic flows, superheated clouds of gas and rock, surged down Baekdu’s slopes at several hundred miles per hour extending tens of kilometers from the mountain top. The volcano’s recognizable shape was also created that day. The 7 km-wide crater famous for hosting the magnificent Heaven Lake (천지; 天池) is all that was left after the earth shaking Millennium Eruption.

Is this divine mountain actually a slumbering giant? Could another Millennium Eruption be upon us? The problem is that we just do not know, which is why I was part of a team of volcanologists sent to North Korea to work alongside local scientists in an attempt to learn all we can about this enormous volcano.

Deploying a small boat near Heaven Lake | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Deploying a small boat near Heaven Lake | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Predicting volcanic behavior is almost impossible. Volcanologists use a multitude of tools and expertise to assess past and present volcanic activity, and sometimes it is possible to make forecasts regarding future activity. But, volcanic forecasting relies heavily upon three key factors: good knowledge of a volcano’s history; an understanding of the internal structure of the volcano; and an assessment of the current state of the volcano, typically gathered through high time resolution monitoring of volcanic gasses and ground movements.

In North Korea, and perhaps more so on the China-North Korea border, access to this necessary information is scarce. Historically, Baekdu has been a difficult volcano to study. Not only to Westerners, but also to the Chinese, who can only access half of the volcano, and to the North Koreans who require special permission to work in border zones. Attempts at collaboration between the Chinese and Korean scientists have always somehow fallen apart, further stifling efforts to study the mountain’s history or even install monitoring equipment. Incidentally, most of the volcanic material unearthed during the Millennium Eruption followed prevailing wind patterns and so was deposited on the North Korean side. This means that understanding the volcano’s history, the first criterion for forecasting future eruption scenarios, is largely locked away within North Korean borders.

For nearly a century after the Millennium Eruption, Baekdu seemed to be quietly slumbering. Research on the volcano was only pursued by passionate volcanologists on both sides of the border, but was largely ignored by politicians. Between 2002-2005, a series of small earthquakes directly beneath the volcano (an event called a seismic swarm) signaled that the volcano may be reawakening. Suddenly, regional officials began to take notice. But without much information on which to base a forecast, scientists could not say what might or might not happen at Baekdu or how the broader East Asian region might be affected.

Forward with Volcanology! | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Forward with Volcanology! | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Volcanological Connections |Six years later, in 2011, after overcoming numerous bureaucratic hurdles, British scientists Drs. Clive Oppenheimer and James Hammond made their first trip to the North Korean countryside to scope out locations for future instrument installations and to foster international collaboration with local scientists. I was lucky enough to be added to the team shortly thereafter, but it took two more years of negotiations and paperwork before we were allowed to bring scientific equipment into North Korea in August of 2013.

The scientific goal of our weeks-long expedition was to begin to gather those three pieces of information necessary for forecasting future eruptions or planning on how to deal with them. With the help of our North Korean colleagues, we collected rock and soil samples from sites all around the volcano. By studying the chemistry and geology of previously erupted products, we can begin to understand how Baekdu behaved in the past. Essentially, we can construct a measure of what the volcano is capable of doing. The 1,000 year-old rocks extracted from Baekdu’s interior carry with them chemical and physical signatures of what happened before and during the explosive event. Over the next several years, my colleagues and I from Britain, France, and North Korea will work together to try and decode these petrified telegrams from Baekdu’s past.

Congruent with the sample collection, a series of seismic stations were installed at Baekdu in a several km-long array down the side of the volcano. British seismologist James Hammond worked alongside the North Koreans to install state-of-the-art UK-owned equipment that will give detailed records of ground movements both on and within the volcano, possibly signaling the movement of magma beneath the surface. These data will give us an assessment of the volcano’s current state, including information on how magma may be moving within underground magma chambers and whether it is making its way toward the surface.

Signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Furthermore, the seismic array will allow the team to map the internal structure of Baekdu by measuring how waves generated by earthquakes around the world travel through the Earth’s crust beneath the volcano. This will accomplish the crucial step of mapping the magmatic plumbing system that supplies the volcano with ammunition for eruptions.

Scientific Futures |Our visit would see not only the beginning of a scientific collaboration between North Korea and the West, but also a diplomatic one. At the culmination of our time in North Korea, a collaborative workshop was held, with talks translated into Korean or English depending on the speaker. But the truly momentous event was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between British, North Korean, and Chinese partners in the endeavor, which marked the beginning of what will surely be a fruitful alliance.

The collaboration with North Korean scientists has been invaluable to our expedition. Our modern equipment and internationally tempered expertise has been equally met by the North Koreans’ intimate local knowledge and extensive experience. The next major milestone in the project will see North Korean scientists coming to the UK to work alongside our British team members at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London.

Heaven Lake | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

Heaven Lake | Image: Kayla Iacovino/Sino-NK

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