Magma mayhem: S. Korean experts fear N. Korean nuclear tests could trigger volcanic eruption

Baekdu Mountain. © Heavenly Star
A team of South Korean scientists believe North Korea’s nuclear tests could cause a serious disaster. This would not be the expected atomic fallout – the experiments could rather cause a volcanic eruption at Mount Baekdu near the test site, they say.

Experts from Yonsei University in the South Korean capital Seoul have written a paper stating the pressure of the force caused by a nuclear bomb being detonated underground, could result in large dynamic stress changes. This in turn could affect the magma chamber of a volcano – causing it to erupt.

The South Korean scientists are worried because of the proximity of the North Korean test site Punggye-ri, which is 116 kilometers from the Mount Baekdu volcano. It last erupted in 1903 and on average spews larva every century.

"An underground nuclear explosion test near an active volcano constitutes a direct threat to the volcano," Hong Tae-kyung, a professor of seismology said in a paper that was co-authored by three other experts, including Choi Eun-seo of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis, the Yonhap news agency reports.

Pyongyang has carried out four subterranean nuclear tests in the last decade. The last nuclear explosion took place in January and was condemned by the West. North Korea says it needs a nuclear bomb as it will act as a weapon of stability and a deterrent against any invasion that could set the nation on the same path as Libya or Iraq.

Initial estimates put the blast in the 10 to 15 kiloton range. Had a full thermonuclear test been carried out, the blast would be closer to 100 kilotons. Meanwhile the United States Geological Survey said the test caused an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale.

However, Pyongyang’s nuclear tests could have an unexpected outcome, which could come back to haunt them, as the South Korean experts say that the seismic activity caused by the detonations could cause the volcano to erupt.

"North Korean nuclear explosions are expected to produce pressure changes of tens to hundreds of kilopascals, causing concern over the possible triggering of a volcanic eruption," the scientists wrote in the paper, which was published in the journal Nature.

The scientists stated that underground nuclear explosions with magnitudes of between 5.0 and 7.6 on the Richter scale could cause overpressure in the magma chamber of several tens to hundreds of kilopascals.

This is not the first time a study has shown the risks of the potential ‘fallout’ of North Korea’s nuclear program. Before a test in 2013, a South Korean geologist claimed that it could cause Mount Baekdu to erupt.

"A nuclear test will probably exert a direct or indirect impact on volcanic activity at the mountain, and this is worrisome,” Yoon Sung-ho said in April, 2013. Yoon is a geological scientist at Pusan National University, who is considered to be the South Korean leading expert on Mount Baekdu.

The first nuclear test conducted in Punggye-ri in 2006, with an explosive yield of about one kiloton, resulted in a magnitude 3.6 tremor. The second test was carried out in 2009 and the yield was estimated at two to six kilotons, which led to a tremor with a magnitude of 4.4 on Richter magnitude scale, according to The Korea Meteorological Administration.