North Korea's Nuclear Test Site Is Suffering From "Tired Mountain Syndrome"

They may get more than they bargained for if they ignore the advice of geologists. Creative Lab/Shutterstock

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions really are pushing it – and we don’t just mean the risk of war on the peninsula. Not only could a successful subterranean hydrogen bomb test trigger a volcanic supereruption at the nearby Mount Paektu, but it also appears that Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site could be soon swallowed by the bowels of the planet thanks to something called “Tired Mountain Syndrome”.

All but one of North Korea’s increasingly powerful nuclear tests have been conducted at this site, which is near Mantapsan, a not inconsiderable mountain. During the most recent sixth detonation, seismologists detected a secondary tremor from the region that they suspected was the roof of the site collapsing in on itself.

Several other tremors since then have been registered, leading some to wonder if the mountain’s geological foundations are becoming increasingly unstable. After all, it’s long been understood that such powerful explosive forces effectively annihilate, and partially vitrify, the surrounding geology.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), however, research into Soviet-era underground nuclear tests revealed that after experiencing multiple weapons tests, the ground has been so fundamentally altered on a structural level that it can no longer contain the effects of the nuclear blast.

The report, dating back to 2001, points out that rocks around a nuclear test site have on occasion become 40 times more permeable. In effect, the region has become incredibly hollowed out. If another nuclear test were to take place in the same spot, the blast energy and radiation would fail to be properly absorbed, and the surrounding landscape would instead be devastated.

At the same time, the strength of said rocks quickly deteriorates as they experience the cataclysmic explosions face on. This can have the overall effect of making test sites extremely vulnerable to widespread collapse.

All in all, Tired Mountain Syndrome makes nuclear test sites unsuitable for any further detonations. So is this the case for the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site?

A group dedicated to the continual analysis of North Korea, 38north, isn’t so sure. They emphasize that, among other things, the site contains multiple deep-seated tunnels, not just one.

“Given the presence of additional test portals,” they concluded in a recent blog post, “we see no reason that the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site as a whole has or will be abandoned for future underground nuclear testing.” They do, however, add “for the time being,” implying that there’s only so much the geology there can take.

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