The crater lake, Cheonji, meaning “sky lake” in Korean, nestles on the top of Mt. Baekdu, the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula. A number of experts raise concerns about a possible eruption of the now dormant volcanic mountain, pressing the South Korean government to prepare itself for such a scenario. / Korea Times file
By Park Si-soo
The government is paying attention to the possibility of a major eruption of Mt. Baekdu, the 2,744-meter dormant volcano on the border between North Korea and China, which experts here and in China claim has shown signs of becoming active.
“Comprehensive countermeasures will be drawn up this year,” a high-ranking official at the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) told The Korea Times, Friday. “To that end, we will soon convene a meeting of volcano experts and officials at related ministries. Plus, we will study volcanoes in China and Japan to enhance our knowledge of the issue.”
The official, who declined to be named, added, “The plan will soon be reported to the President.”
This is the first time that the KMA has commented on dealing with a possible volcanic eruption of the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsula that could devastate the ailing North Korean economy and have a great impact on South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
In 2008, the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Environment held discussions on the issue, but no concrete countermeasures were established, officials said.
Geologist Yoon Sung-hyo at Pusan National University strongly believes that an eruption is possible.
“Baekdu could erupt anytime soon,” said Yoon who has monitored the mountain for changes. “A variety of indicators are backing this scenario. The thing we should try to predict is when. It's clear it's imminent.”
The geologist speculated that an eruption could take place in a couple of years.
According to historical records, major activity on Baekdu 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. Volcanic ash from this eruption has been found as far away as the southern part of Hokkaido, Japan, according.
Small-scale eruptions were recorded in 1413, 1597, 1668 and 1702 _ the last activity was recorded in 1903.
The mountain has stayed inactive since then, leaving it categorized by scientists as dormant. The Chinese government developed the mountain and surrounding areas as a tourist destination drawing tens of thousands of visitors from around the world each year _ many of them from South Korea.
Yet, “unusual signs,” including minor trembling among others, began to emerge around June 2002 and their frequency quakes has notably increased since a 7.3-magnitude earthquake rattled the area around the mountain, according to geologists..
Among other indicators backing the scenario of a future eruption is the height of 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.
백두산 화산 폭발 가능성, 정부 대책 마련
정부는 한.중 전문가들이 백두산이 5년 내 폭발할 수 있다는 주장에 대해 대책을 마련키로 했다.
기상청 당국자는 본지와의 인터뷰에서 "올해 포괄적인 대응책을 준비할 것"이라며, "화산학자들과 관련 정부기관이 회의를 열고 중국과 일본의 화산활동을 주시할 것"이라고 밝혔다.
이는 기상청이 백두산 화산폭발 가능성에 대해 처음으로 입장을 밝힌 것이다.
재작년 통일부와 환경부에서 이 문제 관련 논의를 가졌지만 구체적인 방안은 마련되지 않은 것으로 알려졌다.
윤성효 부산대 지구과학교육과 교수는 "폭발은 수 년 안에 일어날 수 있다"며 "지금 해야 할 일은 폭발 시기를 추측하는 것"이라고 주장했다.
기록에 의하면 고려시대 940년도에 대형폭발이 있었고, 잔해물이 일본 홋카이도에서 발견될 정도였다고 한다.
1413년, 1597년, 1668년, 1702년도에 각각 소규모 분화활동이 있었다는 기록이 있고, 마지막으로 기록된 화산 폭발은 1903년이다.
그 후 백두산은 휴화산으로 지정되어 중국정부는 그 주변을 관광지로 개발했다.
그러나 지질학자들은 2002년 6월 중국 동북부에서 규모 7.3의 지진이 일어난 뒤 백두산 지진이 잦아진 점, 백두산 높이가 마그마 활동으로 10cm이상 높아진 점등을 화산폭발 가능성의 근거로 제시했다.
또한 전문가들은 2006년 10월 러시아 위성이 측정한 백두산 표면 온도가 급격히 올라갔다는 점을 지적하며, 그 해 있었던 북한 지하 핵무기 실험이 마그마 활동을 자극시켰을 수도 있다고 주장했다.