North Korean Nuclear Tests Close Chinese Ski Area

Border resort shuttered amid earthquake and volcano concerns after a series of underground detonations

Underground nuclear tests conducted near the North Korea-China border have triggered earthquakes and landslides near a backcountry skiing resort. (Kade Krichko)

China announced an indefinite closure of the country’s only cat-access ski resort due to earthquakes that were caused by a series of underground nuclear tests conducted by North Korea.

Changbaishan Ski Resort is part of China’s Changbaishan National Nature Reserve, a nearly 800-square-mile preserve along North Korea’s northern border that sits within 70 miles of the nation’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. The underground nuclear detonations in late September registered a seismic magnitude of 6.3, and eight seconds later produced a burst of seismic energy measuring 4.1, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The events triggered a landslide on a mountain within Changbaishan, prompting China to close a large section of the reserve—the only section with ski access.

“For the safety and convenience of travelers, we have temporarily closed the zone of Changbai Mountain. Officials are thoroughly investigating the safety of the tourist area,” reads a message from Chinese authorities, adding that the area will remain closed until “the potential risks disappear.”

The backcountry ski resort is situated on an open flank of the Changbai Mountains, within the southern border of the reserve. For about $200 a day, skiers and boarders are shuttled to the top of the 6,000-plus-foot Changbai Mountains via snowmobile or snowcat. There, they can ski 1,500 vertical feet of open bowls with sweeping views of North Korea and China’s ginseng country.

China’s ski industry continues to grow ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, with the number of ski areas jumping from six to 568 from 1996 to 2016. Changbaishan Ski Resort is a departure from the artificial-snow ski areas popping up around Beijing. Directly in the path of Siberian fronts that drop truckloads of snow on Japan every year, Changbaishan receives a bounty of cold, dry snow every winter, making it China’s premier powder zone.

This orographic blessing, coupled with its proximity to the capital city (just a two-hour flight from Beijing), has made Changbaishan the country’s best winter adventure destination. The Freeride World Tour had been considering making its Chinese debut there, and last year Xavier de la Rue skied into the crater of the area’s volcano, angering authorities. In recent years, China has revamped the county airport and added luxury hotels to nearby towns in Jilin Province to accommodate an influx of domestic and international tourists.

But the mountain range along the border of North Korea and China is sacred to more than just powder hounds. According to North Korean legend, its highest peak, Paektu Mountain, is the birthplace of the country’s former dictator Kim Jong-il. According to geological history, the range is also the skeleton of a violent volcanic eruption, an event that turned an ancient peak into the ring of mountains that appear today.

Aside from earthquakes and the subsequent landslides and avalanches, researchers worry that continued nuclear tests could recreate that explosive scenario, reactivating magma chambers and kicking off what would be a catastrophic modern-day volcanic eruption. A Newsweek article said that for a nuclear detonation to cause serious damage to a volcano, a preceding underground blast would need to measure at least 100 kilotons. The explosion in September was estimated to be around two and a half times that size.

Filed To: China / North Korea / Nature / Politics
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