Politics May Affect Chinese Seismologists’ Views on Volcanic Activities

By Wen Long, Epoch Times
December 9, 2010 Updated: December 9, 2010

A recent dispute among Chinese and Korean scientists furnishes an example of how scientific debate in China differs from outside.

Changbai Mountain, known as Baekdu Mountain in Korean, is the highest on the Korean Peninsula. Back in June the mountain grabbed international attention when Prof. Yoon Seong-hyo from Korea’s Pusan National University said it would see a major eruption in the near future. Yoon is highly respected in his field, and carries the nickname “Prof. Baekdu.”

Things became heated when Prof. Yoon and his colleague Prof. Lee Jeong-hyeon, also from Pusan National University, jointly published a thesis in the Geological Society of Korea forum in October. They reported observing more and more signs of volcanic activity since 2002.

Such signs include gas emissions killing surrounding trees, GPS data showing accelerated movement in the body of the mountain, temperatures of hot springs surrounding Tianchi Lake increasing to 83ºC (181.4 ºF), frequent small scale earthquakes, and other eruption indicators.

Yoon concluded in his report, “There is no doubt that Baekdu Mountain is an active volcano and will erupt sooner or later. The mountain shows obvious precursors of eruption in recent years.”

However, Yoon’s Chinese counterparts disagree.

Yin Chaomin, Deputy Director of China Earthquake Administration (CEA), said “Changbai Mountain is more stable than ever before,” at a joint China-South Korea-Japan earthquake research meeting.

Xu Jiandong, a scientist at the Geological Research Center affiliated with CEA, said that according to his findings, “Changbai volcano won’t erupt in the next few years; I am affirmative that our generation won’t see that.”

Both Yin and Xu’s views have been widely quoted by state-run media outlets in China following the initial article that caused panic. But they brought forward no new evidence, instead disagreeing that Yoon's evidence was cause for concern.

The South Korean newspaper Chosunilbo reports that it is possible that Chinese state bureaucrats worry that such a prediction could affect tourism at Changbai Mountain.

It is not uncommon in China for disaster warnings to be toned down for political needs. Scientists gave warnings about the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008, but communist leaders suppressed them and classified them as rumors in state media. The earthquake claimed over 68,000 lives and left over 4.8 million homeless, according to official numbers.

Earthquake warnings were again ignored for the Yushu earthquake near the Tibet Autonomous Region early this April. The earthquake claimed over 2,500 lives.

Eruption could bring disaster far greater than the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland early this year, because there is a lake on the mountain. According to Prof. Yoon, the adjacent area inside China and North Korea would be wiped out by flooding and volcanic ash, South Korea would experience flight interruptions, and Japan would be hit with a snow of ash.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, a government department that works towards eventually unifying North and South Korea, is reportedly setting up a task force and commission to study the matter further, after reading the report by Yoon, according to KBS World Radio.

The obstinate approach by Chinese scientists may also be a question of damage control for an embarrassing media mistake made earlier.

Following Yoon’s publication, an article titled “South Korean Experts Predict Changbai Mountain Will Erupt in 2014,” was widely published in Chinese state-run media. The report created a panic and some Chinese residents living close to Changbai Mountain began relocating.

When contacted about the mountain erupting in 2014, Yoon told The Epoch Times that he never predicted an eruption in 2014 and criticized the state-run article for creating a panic.

Prof. Yoon did say that it was "absolute necessary" to carry out thorough monitoring and plan counter measures to mitigate the damage of a possible eruption.

Read the original Chinese article