Here’s How North Korea Could Accidentally Trigger A Volcanic Super Eruption

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF FORBES SCIENCE)

 

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Here’s How North Korea Could Accidentally Trigger A Volcanic Super Eruption

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Scientific hypotheses are normally quite fun to try and gather evidence for. Einstein’s ground-breaking theories of relativity, for example, have been continuously backed up by the most extraordinary discoveries ever since they were first published near the start of the 20th Century.

In science, proving bad ideas wrong is a marvel, but confirming that your ideas are correct is arguably even more thrilling. There are exceptions to this though, and since North Korea is in the news a lot at the moment – in-between mentions of the Nazis and the President’s inability to look at the eclipse properly, that is – it’s worth taking a look at the Hermit Kingdom’s sleeping dragon: a volcano named Mount Paektu.

This picture taken on August 14, 2017 and released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 15, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Located on the border of China and North Korea, it’s got one hell of a reputation. The current leader of North Korea is supposed to have summited the 2,744-metre (9,003-foot) stratovolcanic beast all by himself on foot, which seems about as unlikely as the story of the late Kim Jong-il being born there.

Putting aside its mythology, it’s currently causing concern among volcanologists. Its storied geological history – which we’ll get into in just a tad – is so violent that even the notoriously secretive North Korean government has enlisted the help of British researchers to poke around a bit.

The rare international scientific collaboration revealed that the magma chamber plumbing system beneath this mountain is far from dead; seismic imaging suggests that it has a fiery soul that’s tens of kilometres across and several kilometres deep. Someday, all that magma is going to burst forth at the surface. The key question here, as always, is when?

Well, bizarrely, thanks to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it might be any day now. According to a separate studyconducted over the last couple of years, the country’s underground weapons tests are sending powerful pressure waves towards Paektu’s massive magma chamber. This pressure is essentially being transferred to the magma, and at a certain point, it could cause the rock surrounding the partly liquid doom to crack, and thereby trigger an eruption.

Farm/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0

Heaven’s Lake, at the top of Mount Paektu, seen here in winter.

Mathematics is a rather wonderful thing. It can predict with perfection when and where solar eclipses will happen, just as it can calculate how long it will take for Jupiter’s moon Io to be torn apart by the gas giant’s immense gravitational well. In this instance, it can also be used to work out how powerful an underground nuclear blast is required to push a magma chamber into a state of overpressure.

The most recent nuclear weapons tests, based on their seismic wave patterns, are around 5-5.6M on the moment magnitude scale, which – along with plenty of other evidence – suggests they are basic atomic weapons, with yields of around 10 kilotonnes of TNT. For comparison, the atomic weapon dropped on Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War had an explosive yield of just over twice that.

Although these pressure waves did indeed make their way towards Mount Paektu 116 kilometers away, they clearly weren’t enough to trigger an eruption. In order to send the magma chamber into overpressure, North Korea would need to detonate a hydrogen bomb at the same Punggye-ri subterranean test site. This more complex two-step device, one which uses a fission (splitting) reaction in a primary bomb component to compress a heavy hydrogen core (fusion) in a secondary component.

Even the most simplistic hydrogen bomb would create an earthquake registering as a 7.0M, and according to the study, this would be enough to trigger an eruption. If it did, then what would happen? Well, let’s take a look at the aforementioned history of Paektu.

All it could take is just one hydrogen bomb, and the world will hear the result. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Although there was a minor eruption back in 1903, back in the year 946, a true cataclysm occurred. Known as the Millennium Eruption, it unleashed 100 cubic kilometres of volcanic debris, smothered the surrounding landscape in pyroclastic flows, and unleashed 1,000 times more energy than the famous 1980 eruption at Mount St. Helens.

The eruption also flooded the regional skies with 45 million tonnes of sulphur aerosols, which plunged the area into darkness. Although it didn’t affect the climate as much as researchers expected, if it were to happen again today, many thousands of people would die, and millions more would see their agriculture collapse. In a country that is already vulnerable to food shortages, this could trigger an unprecedented famine – which, in turn, could trigger all kinds of chaos.

Who knows. Maybe the mathematical calculations are off, or maybe an eruption at Paektu would be more like the one at the turn of the 20th Century than the one that took place a thousand or so years ago.

The only way for this hypothesis to be proven is to see what happens when North Korea actually detonates a hydrogen bomb – a milestone that no other nation on Earth wants them to achieve.

South Korea’s President Warns That North Korea Is About To Test 6th Nuclear Weapon

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

By Ju-min Park | SEOUL

South Korea’s acting president warned on Tuesday of “greater provocations” by North Korea as tension on the Korean peninsula rises over concern the North may conduct a test of its military hardware in coming days.

A U.S. Navy strike group led by a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is en route to the western Pacific with talk of military action by the United States gaining traction following its strikes last week against Syria.

South Korean acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn ordered the military to intensify monitoring of the North’s activities and to ensure close communication with the ally the United States.

“It is possible the North may wage greater provocations such as a nuclear test timed with various anniversaries including the Supreme People’s Assembly,” said Hwang, acting leader since former President Park Geun-hye was removed over a graft scandal.

The North convenes a Supreme People’s Assembly session on Tuesday, one of its twice-yearly sessions in which major appointments are announced and national policy goals are formally approved.

Saturday is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding father and grandfather of current ruler, Kim Jong Un.

A military parade is expected in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, to mark the day. North Korea often also marks important anniversaries with tests of its nuclear or missile capabilities.

The North’s foreign ministry, in a statement carried by its KCNA news agency earlier on Tuesday, said the U.S. navy strike group’s move near the Korean peninsula showed America’s “reckless moves for invading had reached a serious phase”.

“We never beg for peace but we will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs in order to defend ourselves by powerful force of arms and keep to the road chosen by ourselves,” an unidentified ministry spokesman said.

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Delegates from around the North have been arriving in Pyongyang ahead of the assembly session. They visited statues of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, state media reported.

North Korea is emerging as one of the most pressing foreign policy problems facing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.

The Trump administration is reviewing its policy toward North Korea and has said all options are on the table, including military strikes.

The U.S. Navy strike group Carl Vinson canceled a planned trip to Australia and was moving toward the western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula as a show of force, a U.S. official told Reuters over the weekend.

Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met in Florida last week and Trump pressed Xi to do more to curb North Korea’s nuclear program.

China and South Korea agreed on Monday to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea if it carried out nuclear or long-range missile tests, a senior official in Seoul said.

As well as the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, there are several other North Korean anniversaries in April that could be opportunities for weapon tests, South Korean officials have said.

The North is seen ready to conduct its sixth nuclear test at any time, with movements detected by satellites at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

(Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel)