[VIEWPOINT]It’s time to halt the sands of grime

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[VIEWPOINT]It’s time to halt the sands of grime

The wind that carries yellow dust from the desert in northern China blows to the Korean Peninsula every year without exception, and it swept through the whole peninsula last weekend.
People who went ahead with their weekend outings, relying on the weather forecast that “a wind carrying a low density of yellow dust will pass by the peninsula,” had to walk around in the yellow dust with a density of 2,370 micrograms per cubic meter, 40 times higher than normal. They were unexpectedly attacked.
In 2002, a strong yellow dust storm forced primary schools on the peninsula to suspend classes. But people complained that they were not prepared for last weekend’s storm.
The winds that carry yellow dust swept the Korean Peninsula only once or twice a year until 1990, and the yellow dust wind lasted about a total of three days. Recently, however, the frequency and the duration have more than doubled. In 2001, the yellow dust covered the peninsula nearly a month, 27 days.
What is even worse is that the desert area in northern China, where yellow dust originates, expands continuously. Each year, about 2,000 square kilometers of dry land, three times the size of Seoul city, in northern China turns into desert.
Already some 16 percent of the Chinese territory, or 1.53 million square kilometers of land (about 15 times the size of South Korea), has turned into desert. It has reached as close as 70 kilometers from Beijing.
The fundamental solution to the yellow dust lies in slowing down the desert area’s expansion and restoring the dry land to pasture.
China has designated an area over twice the size of the Korean Peninsula as a district where grazing is prohibited permanently or temporarily. The government plans to invest more than 200 billion won ($207 million) in restoration of grasslands. South Korea will contribute about 5 billion won in the grassland creation project over a period of five years. But, considering the scale and the speed of the expansion of the desert area, the contribution is too small.
The floating yellow dust can be created in North Korea, too. In order to prevent the occurrence of such a natural disaster, we have to provide more economic aid to North Korea right now. Then we have to conclude an international treaty, perhaps named “Northeast Asia Yellow Dust Agreement,” so we can claim indemnity for our damages. This will force the Chinese government to establish more active measures against yellow dust.
Right now, it is more important to forecast the arrival of yellow dust precisely. The weather bureau’s failure to forecast the arrival of yellow sand last weekend was caused not by a shortage of memory capacity in the supercomputer, but by a lack of information input.
There is a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” In the case of the wind that swept down to South Korea via North Korea last weekend, the information on the atmospheric environment of North Korea needed to be put in the computer.
Without the proper data, what use is a supercomputer? The government's effort to secure information on North Korea’s atmospheric environment is needed urgently.
One thing we overlook now is the possibility of yellow dust originating from North Korea. Yellow dust is very fine dust, and it can originate wherever there is dry land.
North Korea has created terraced rice paddies and vegetable fields by cutting the slopes of mountains in an effort to get more food, and raked up fallen leaves to burn due to a shortage of fuel.
The devastation of forests in North Korea has already resulted in repeated natural disasters, such as drought and floods.
There is ample possibility that the yellow dust originating from North Korea aggravates the density of dust in our air, which is already two to three times higher than that of advanced countries.
The fastest way of preventing it in advance to restore the forests in the North Korean mountains. That is even more important than supplying food to North Korean residents.
The lesson we have to learn from the yellow dust phenomenon is that nature pays back as much as we have done to it.
People might have earned some cash from the wood they got by destroying the forest and succeeded in getting skin and meat by raising sheep and goat in the pasture, but nature retaliated with a disaster, the expansion of the desert area. Before it gets too late, we must restore nature to its original form.

* The writer is a professor of earth & environmental science at Sejong University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jeon Eui-chan
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