Mt. Baekdu
© Korea Times file
Citing the rise of the surface temperature of Mt. Baekdu, geologists predict its eruption in a couple of years.
Yes, one! There's only one thing about which they think in a same way - a concern about possible eruption of Mt. Baekdu. The two Koreas remain at odds in everything. But they are one in voicing how to counter the possible volcanic explosion of the highest mountain in the Korean Peninsula

Inter-Korean anxiety is mounting, with growing apocalyptic predictions on the dormant volcano. A South Korean geological expert has warned that the volcano could erupt sometime around 2014 and 2015.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly said people in some regions of Yanggang and North Hamgyeong Provinces were feeling anxiety over a volcanic eruption of Mt. Baekdu. Kim called for quick countermeasures by the North Korean authorities.

If a volcano, located on the border between North Korea and China erupts, damage could be 10 to 100 times greater than that caused by the April 2010 eruptions in Iceland. Experts predict that the ashes would not only hit the neighboring area but damage agriculture and cause serious disruptions in industrial activities and air flights. The Korean Peninsula, China, Japan and Russia would be severely damaged.

A volcanic eruption begins when pressure on a magma chamber forces magma up through the conduit and out the volcano's vents. When the magma chamber is completely filled, the type of eruption partly depends on the amount of gas and silica in the magma. The amount of silica determines how sticky (level of viscosity) the magma is and water provides the explosive potential of steam.

The 2010 Iceland eruption caused enormous disruption to air travel across Western and Northern Europe, although relatively small in size for volcanic eruptions. About 20 countries closed their airspace and it affected hundreds of thousands of travelers. A very high proportion of flights within, to, and from Europe were cancelled, creating the highest level of air travel disruption since the World War II.

Geological studies

Fears of a Mt. Baekdu eruption loom large with ensuing warnings based on a series of geological studies from experts. A growing number of scholars have not ruled out the possibility of another eruption, linking the collapse of Korea's ancient kingdom, Balhae, with the previous one.

One theory comes from professor Hiroshi Machida of Tokyo Metropolitan University. Machida first presented a view in 1992 that the eruption of Mt. Baekdu (Mt. Changbai in Chinese) led to the fall of Balhae, which had expanded its sovereignty to the vast Manchuria territory. His theory was based on volcanic ash found in Tomakomai, a port city in southern Hokkaido, in 1981. The ash was named "Baekdu-Tomakomai volcanic ash" (B-Tm) after Mt. Baekdu and Tomakakomi city where it was found, according to So Won-ju who wrote the book "Secret of Mt. Baekdu's Great Eruption."

Machida's theory has gained momentum as an increasing number of geologists and climate change researchers have presented views that the ash was produced in the eruption of the highest mountain in the Korean Peninsula in the 10th century. The eruption of the 2,744 meter-high mountain was billed as the largest in the history of mankind and was about 50 times stronger than that of Mt. Vesuvius of Italy in 79 A.D. which led to the burying and destruction of the Roman city Pompeii.

Balhae (Bohai in Chinese) was established by Dae Jo-yeong, a former Goguryeo general, in 698 after the fall of Goguryeo. Dae Jo-yeong took the helm of Jin (Zhen in Chinese), founded by his father Dae Jung-sang in 696, and renamed the country Balhae, declaring it as the successor state of Goguryeo (37 B.C. - 668 A.D.).

Balhae's ruin

Balhae occupied the southern parts of Manchuria and Primorsky Krai (now Russia's Far East), and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. It was defeated by the Khitans in 926, and most of its northern territories were absorbed into the Liao Dynasty, also known as the Khitan Empire, founded in 907 while the southern parts were absorbed into Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392).

A dominant view related to Balhae's decline had been Khitans' 926 invasion. Some conventional historians believed that the rampancy of ethnic conflicts between the ruling Koreans and underclass Mohe (Malgal) caused its fall. But some refute these allegations, giving more weight on the catastrophic explosion of Mt. Baekdu as a primary cause for Balhae's ruin rather than Khitans' attack.

Balhae had been engaged in a war with the Khitans for about two weeks and then collapsed immediately. How could Balhae with a long 200-year history fall so easily in such a short period of battle? Some historians raised doubts about the early collapse, pointing to Mt. Baekdu erupting as a cause for Balhae's ruin.

The massive explosion was believed to have created a tremendous amount of volcanic ash, damaging agriculture and even societal integrity. The Khitans were believed to have taken advantage of this natural disaster in putting the volcano-stricken Balhae under their complete control. The eruption might have prevented Balhae survivors from rebuilding their nation in consideration of the catastrophe.

A variety of indicators, suggested by geologists and Balhae dynasty researchers who have monitored the change of Baekdu's geographical features, are backing a scenario of the recurrence of the Mt. Baekdu eruption. Some experts say that an eruption is imminent. Geologist Yoon Sung-hyo at Pusan National University strongly believes Mt. Baekdu could erupt anytime soon."

According to historical records, major activity on the mountain in the 940s created a caldera on its peak, whose circumference is nearly 14 kilometers with an average depth of 213 meters and a maximum of 384 meters. Atop the mountain is Cheonji, literally meaning "heavenly lake," the largest caldera in the world.

Volcanic ash

Volcanic ash from Mt. Baekdu eruption has been found as far away as the southern part of Hokkaido, Japan. Geologists predict the occurrence of great Mt. Baekdu eruptions every 1,000 years and that of minor ones every 200 to 300 years. Minor eruptions were recorded in 1413, 1597, 1668 and 1702 with the last activity being recorded in 1903.

Among other indicators backing the scenario of a future eruption is the height of Mt. Baekdu, which has grown nearly 10 centimeters since 2002. Experts say an expanding magma pool, a precondition for an eruption, is gradually pushing up the height of the mountain as well as the temperature on the surface. On Oct. 1, 2006, a Russian satellite found the surface temperature of the mountain notably higher than before. The finding came just days after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in its northern territory, which could have been a catalyst reactivating magma flows, according to analysts.

Mt. Baekdu has been carefully observed since 1999 when a volcanic observatory was built in China, and since 2002, there have been some symptoms of an eruption. Seismic activity near the mountain has increased dramatically, and the concentration of hydrogen and helium emissions, both of which are volcanic gases have risen 10-fold. And there's ample possibility that Mt. Baekdu may erupt in the near future.

If Mt. Baekdu erupts, it would no doubt bring about grave consequences for the two Koreas as well as the surrounding states, including China, Japan and Russia. The biggest immediate threat is the 2 billion tons of water in the lake on top of the crater. An eruption would likely cause severe flood damage, engulfing roads and homes within a 30-kilometer radius in just 3 hours and 20 minutes, a geological report found recently.

Mt. Baekdu's caldera

The greatest victim of a Mt. Baekdu explosion may be North Korea, especially Yanggang and Hamgyeong Provinces. The two regions, located on the tip of the Korean Peninsula, may be covered with ash in just two hours.

In about eight hours, ash may reach Ulleungdo and Dokdo, two far eastern islands of South Korea, and in 12 hours, land on Tottori Prefecture, Japan. After 18 hours, volcanic ash would likely spread beyond Japan.

The National Institute for Disaster Prevention conducted a simulation in 2010 to test how far volcanic ash can spread if Mt. Baekdu erupts. According to the results, the effects can be different depending on the timing. If it happens in winter, Japan is expected to be more affected due to the northwest monsoon. On the other hand, a summer eruption would affect South Korea more.

Mt. Baekdu's caldera has nearly two billion tons of water. If volcanic heat evaporates the water and is mixed suddenly with volcanic ashes, it would be strong enough to engulf even Vladivostok in Russia and Hokkaido in northern Japan, according to experts. The construction of nuclear power plants by North Korea and China in the neighborhood may certainly pose a grave threat to all Northeast Asians, with the view that Mt. Baekdu's explosion would for sure cause subsequent nuclear catastrophes, as seen in Japan's 2011 tsunami disaster. A volcanic explosion is the most terrible natural disaster which cannot be easily avoided by human wisdom and knowledge.

With unrelenting outbreaks of record-breaking natural disasters around the world and especially in the wake of Japan's massive earthquake that is now estimated to have killed nearly 10,000, the world's eyes are drawn to Mt. Baekdu. Multinational and regional cooperative monitoring systems are needed beyond ideological barriers to take preemptive measures against a possible eruption.

By all indications, Mt. Baekdu is a real danger and it's not clear how long it will stay inactive. A Mt. Baekdu eruption, if it takes place, will not be a matter for a certain country but a global concern to determine the future of Northeast Asian civilization.