Only a Rumbling Volcano Could Make North Korea and the West Play Nice
Today the volcano that straddles the border between China and North Korea is tranquil. Hot springs simmer on the surrounding peaks, wild blueberries grow on its green slopes and a crystal-clear pool called Heaven Lake fills its crater.
But Mount Paektu, as the North Koreans call it, is only asleep. When it last awoke about a thousand years ago, the so-called Millennium Eruption unleashed one of the most violent volcanic events in recorded human history. And when North Korean scientists recorded a swarm of tiny earthquakes rumbling beneath the volcano from 2002 to 2005, they were so concerned that the reclusive country eventually contacted the West for help.
但是这座被朝鲜人称为白头山(Mount Paektu)的火山只是睡着了。它上一次醒来是在一千多年前，造成了所谓的“千年大喷发”(Millennium Eruption)，是人类历史记载中最剧烈的火山爆发之一。从2002年到2005年，朝鲜科学家记录了火山附近发生的一系列小地震后感到非常担心，于是这个与外界隔绝的国家最终联系西方寻求帮助。
The result was a rare collaboration of scientists from North Korea and researchers from countries with which it has hostile relations.
Officials in Pyongyang first reached out in 2011, and after two years of planning the project was set. In 2013, volcanologists from the United States and Britain met researchers in North Korea to investigate Mount Paektu and its magma plumbing.
The effort has since yielded tantalizing insights into the slumbering giant that once blanketed the Korean Peninsula in an avalanche of ash.
Mount Paektu is sacred to the North Korean people. They valorize it as the site where Kim Il Sung, the founding father of modern North Korea, used guerrilla tactics to fight the Japanese during World War II, and as the supposed birthplace of his son, Kim Jong-il, who succeeded him as the country’s leader.
North Koreans make pilgrimages to the mountain, and students march up its summit singing songs. It is an important fixture in their everyday lives, visible in their paintings and propaganda. Even kindergartners sing the song “Let’s Go to Mount Paektu.”
朝鲜人来到这座山上朝觐，学生们爬上山顶歌唱。它在朝鲜人的日常生活中起着至关重要的作品，在他们的图画和宣传中随处可见。就连幼儿园的孩子们都会唱《走向白头山》(Let’s Go to Mount Paektu)这首歌。
“That cultural significance explains part of the motivation for the scientists there to understand the volcano,” said Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge who was part of the team. “They are concerned about the cultural impact that a future large eruption would have.”
One of the questions that the team set out to answer was how much gas the Millennium Eruption sent into the sky, and whether the event affected the climate in the Northern Hemisphere.
Large eruptions can release huge clouds of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. There, the sulfur gas transforms into a sulfate aerosol that reflects sunlight and cools the planet. The famous modern example was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which ejected so much volcanic dust and rock into the stratosphere it caused what is known as “the year without summer.”
Blizzards hit New York in June, and frost wreaked havoc on crops in New England in July. That eruption released an estimated 28 megatons of sulfur.
When the sulfur falls back to the ground, it can get trapped and preserved in polar ice. Previous studies of ice cores from Greenland dated to A.D. 946, when the Millennium Eruption occurred, had low levels of sulfur, suggesting that the eruption emitted a small amount of gas and did not have strong effects on the climate.
But the team thought the ice core estimates might have been low and wanted to test for sulfur traces within the white pumice that came from the actual eruption and was now scattered across the volcano.
By analyzing the white pumice for geochemical clues, the team found that the Millennium Eruption actually emitted a large amount of sulfur into the atmosphere: an estimated 45 megatons. That is about 20 times what previous estimates had suggested, and about 1.5 times what was emitted by Mount Tambora.
“This eruption had much more gas than we thought it did in the past,” said Kayla Iacovino, a volcanologist at Arizona State University and lead author on the team’s most recent paper. “It had enough gas to place it as one of the largest gas-emitting volcanoes in human history.”
Dr. Iacovino said that the next step to forecasting any future eruptions would be continued monitoring.
“We were able to make this collaboration supersuccessful in no small part thanks to the North Korean government,” she said. She hopes the results from their work with the North Koreans will lead to further research.
“If we can understand the volcano’s history, what the volcano is capable of, only then can we start to make predictions of what it might do in the future.”