News about North Korea is best taken with a Pyongyang-size grain of salt. The same goes for recent claims about North Korean nukes triggering a volcanic eruption of Mount Paektu.
According to a CNN story last month, when North Korea deploys nuclear missile tests, "the blast sends a jolt of energy through the Earth—one that could potentially trigger a volcanic eruption on its border with China."
The Daily Mail surmised the following this week: "Kim Jong-un could DESTROY sacred North Korean volcano by causing it to ERUPT with his nuclear missile tests, experts warn."
This is according to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation whose speculation formed the basis of CNN's entire story. Bennett warned that an eruptive Mount Paektu, which is bisected by the China-North Korea border, could kill tens of thousands of people. "The Chinese for years have been worried that [Kim Jong Un is] going to cause a volcano to erupt," he added.
I reached out to several volcanologists about the validity of Bennett's claim. Is it possible that Bennett, whose background is in economics and policy analysis, isn't an expert on volcanoes? Might the Rand Corporation, a national security research institute, benefit from stoking fears about North Korea? Or maybe he's right, and we're all gonna die!
"Hypothetically, it is unlikely that a bomb could trigger a volcanic eruption at Mount Paektu. It's possible that if the volcano were already on the verge of erupting anyway, an extra seismic 'kick' from a bomb might push the volcano over the edge and cause it to erupt a bit earlier than it was planning to anyway," Tracy Gregg, a planetary volcanologist and associate professor of geology at the University at Buffalo, told me over email.
She added that "there's no indication that Mount Paektu is primed."
Bennett isn't wrong that an eruption of Mount Paektu could be cataclysmic. The volcano—a national emblem that's considered sacred to North Korea—has slept peacefully since 946 BCE, when the fallout of its last eruption reached Japan. The mountain rumbled a bit between 2002 and 2005, and over the last several years, British and American scientists have been examining her up-close.
Still, Mount Paektu is mostly unknown to the rest of the world. And because of North Korea's relatively impenetrable borders, it's difficult for volcanologists to gain access, making it even harder to accurately predict Paektu's future.
"Before we become alarmed, I'd want to know what's going on with this volcano. Do we know if it's perched on the precipice of eruption," asked Michael Garcia, a professor at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Hypothetically, Garcia told me, energy that's added to a volcanic system could trigger an eruption only if it was already close to doing so. "It's sad [that Bennett made those claims] without providing the context for such a story," he added.
Bennett told CNN that a 50 to 100 kiloton nuclear explosion (North Korea's nuclear power has reached 10 kilotons) could trigger Mount Paektu. It's unclear how he came to this conclusion.
There's no evidence that human activity has ever caused an eruption. We have, however, attempted to divert lava flows in Hawaii by dropping explosives on active lava channels. ("It hasn't worked well," Gregg said.)
Ultimately, Bennett's fearmongering can't be justified by available data. And what we do know about Mount Paektu only weakens his theory. Will she ever blow again? Experts don't know yet. But until then, remain skeptical, friends.
Correction: This story originally said that Bruce Bennett told CNN that a 50 to 100 kiloton nuclear explosion would trigger Mount Paektu. We have updated this story to say that Bennett told CNN that a 50 to 100 kiloton nuclear explosion could trigger Mount Paektu.