In an attempt to understand the dynamics of a sleeping, yet dangerous volcano, reclusive North Korea finally opens its doors to Western scientists.
North Korean scientists collaborated with Western experts in examining the underground of Mt. Paektu that lies on the Chinese-Korean border. It is also known as Changbaishan on the Chinese side.
The study highlighted the geological makeup of the volcano's underbelly that allowed scientists to gather useful data, which can be used in possible eruptions in the future.
Kayla Iacovino of U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, together with Ri Kyong-Song of the Earthquake Administration in Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) used previous seismic information to locate the molten rock underneath the sleeping mountain.
The volcano is described as one of the most hazardous in North Korea. Mount Paektu's most powerful eruption that dates back to the year 946, spewed ash that reached Japan.
Based on previous activities of the volcano, its eruption can reach 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from its summit, said Haiquan Wei, a resident volcanologist at China Earthquake Administration.
"The volcano is quiet at the moment, but it's definitely got potential," said seismologist James Hammond of Birkbeck, University of London. "We need to keep an eye on it."
At present, more than 1.6 million residents are within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the volcano.
Mount Paektu's last eruption was in 1903. In 2002, the volcano showed seismic activity, which are thought to cause magma to shift underground. Even though the shaking eventually stopped after several years without any untoward incidents, researchers knew that they needed to do something to prepare for eruptions.
Six state-of-the-art seismometers were placed in the volcano from August 2013 to August 2015 to analyze seismic waves and how it travels under the volcano. Researchers found that part of the crust was partially molten.
"Whether or not that melt is going to turn into an eruption is a bigger question," Iacovino said. "But at least we can now start to draw a picture of what's happening."
Iacovino said helping emergency officials in preparing for a possible eruption is still difficult at this time because they need to fully understand its past activities.
Iacovino added that if Mount Paektu erupts again, it could send clouds of ash skyward or send water to rush downhill from the summit lake.
The scientists believe that the collaboration would allow more insight into the volcano's activities and potential for eruption.
Since it is straddling two countries, previous knowledge about the volcano is fragmented. Iacovino said that those studying it from one side have no idea of what is on the other side.
With diplomatic support from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC and the Royal Society in London, Hammond began the study in North Korea.
The scientists express gratitude that they were given the chance to study the volcano, which is significant to Korea as it is the highest point in the country and is believed to be the birthplace of both the founder of first Korean kingdom and former DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il.
Hammond is currently working on proposals to further the study. He said that the Chinese and North Koreans can work together, but hopes to be part of it still.
"We'd really like to work with together with the Chinese and North Koreans to study that volcano as a whole volcano, using instruments on both sides of the border."
The paper was published in Science Advances.
Studying eruption potential of volcanoes is important in understanding and preparing for disasters. Earth is presently in a period of extreme volcanic activity, said scientists from the European Science Foundation (ESF). Supervolcanoes, like the one in Yellowstone National Park, can erupt and cause global calamity.