Some Myths Never Die: Will Nuclear Testing at Punggye-ri Trigger a Volcanic Eruption from Mt. Paektu?

Sensationalist media reports continue to resurface with frightening headlines concerning the potential for a future North Korean underground nuclear test to trigger a catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mt. Paektu (a large “stratovolcano” located on the border with China, 114 kilometers to the northwest of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site). As recently as August 23, a Forbes article raised the scary specter of a future high-yield nuclear explosive test (involving a “hydrogen bomb”) serving as such an accidental trigger. Earlier this year, similar reporting was published by CNN, the Express and the Daily Mail.

Mt. Paektu (with its crater lake) is frequently used as a backdrop for significant announcements on North Korean Television (as was the case here in July 2017 when noted anchorwoman, Ri Chun Hee, announced a successful ICBM launch).

In May, 38 North published a commentary on the initial CNN report on May 9 (“Debunking the Volcanic Panic”), which provided historical precedent for nuclear testing NOT triggering volcanic eruptions as evidenced by multi-megaton nuclear tests conducted by the United States in Alaska near three stratovolcanoes all located within 90 kilometers of the shot point. The largest test, roughly 5 megatons (codenamed Cannikin), detonated on November 6, 1971 and generating a body wave magnitude of 6.9, did not trigger any volcanic eruptions (or earthquakes) in the seismically active Aleutian Islands, a volcanic arc consisting of 62 active and dormant volcanoes. As we stated in that commentary, “While it might, at first, seem reasonable to derive cause and effect between nuclear testing and natural earth movements, closer inspection of the comparative scales of these events, along with a review of past US nuclear test experience in similar geologic environments, suggests that the likelihood of any such a connection is extremely remote.”

It should be noted that 38 North was not alone in making such an evidentiary assessment. An article by Sarah Emerson was published on Motherboard a few weeks after ours, which quoted planetary volcanologists, came to a similar but independent conclusion, most notably that the “fearmongering can’t be supported by available data.” With all the problems North Korea’s advancements in its nuclear program are creating, Emerson’s sub-title says it all, “There’s plenty of other stuff to be scared about.” Hopefully this volcanic panic is one myth that can be put to rest.

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