At the moment, the world is watching North Korea and its leader, wondering when he is finally going to explode. And while the attention is on the country, it’s worth noting that it is sitting on a volcano named Mount Paektu—which also holds daunting potential. And it’s currently causing major concerns among volcanologists.
Recently, North Korea enlisted the help of British researchers in a rare scientific collaboration that ultimately revealed that the magma chamber is far from dead. In fact, seismic imaging shows that the volcano has fiery potential that’s tens of kilometers. across and several kilometers deep. And it’s just a matter of time before it erupts.
Thanks to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, that eruption could happen any day now. According to a separate study, the country’s underground weapons tests are sending pressure waves toward the volcano’s magma chamber. This pressure is being transferred to the magma, and at some point, it could trigger action.
Researchers used tried-and-true equations to work out just how strong an underground nuclear blast would be required to cause the magma chamber to enter into a new state of overpressure. The most recent nuclear weapons tests are around 5 and 5.6M on the moment magnitude scale—suggesting they are basic atomic weapons. These explosions weren’t enough to trigger an eruption. At the same test site, they would need a hydrogen bomb to detonate that kind of overpressure. Even the most simplistic hydrogen bomb would create a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and trigger an eruption.
If an eruption similar to the one that happened in 946 (which was 1,000 times more energy than the eruption of Mount St. Helens), many thousands of people would die and agriculture would largely collapse. Unfortunately, this could spark an unprecedented famine.