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Will Mount Fuji celebrate World Heritage status by blowing its top?

by Mark Schreiber

On May 1, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs announced it had received notification that Mount Fuji had been recommended for World Heritage status by the UNESCO-affiliated International Council on Monuments and Sites. Formal approval is expected at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Cambodia next month.

Mount Fuji will thus become Japan’s 13th World Heritage Site. The first two, Nara’s Horyuji Temple and Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, were designated 20 years ago.

In addition to its scenic beauty, the 3,776-meter-high mountain’s lower slopes boast exceptional biodiversity, attracting visitors year-round for leisure and sports activities.

One wonders how the voting might have gone, however, had the delegates been perusing Japan’s tabloid press — which from late March have been emitting increasingly shrill warnings that a major earthquake may be imminent, and that such a catastrophic event might be accompanied by Mount Fuji’s awakening from its 306-year slumber with a huge volcanic eruption.

Are these frantic warnings in the media credible? Only time will tell. In addition to frequent earthquakes around the archipelago that may indicate increased tectonic activity, other natural phenomena have been observed.

Nikkan Gendai (May 1) pointed to unusually low water levels in nearby Lake Kawaguchi as a possible harbinger. The levels have retreated to the point that the Rokkaku-do, a hexagonal wooden pavilion on a small island in Lake Kawaguchi, can be reached on foot.

Low water levels have been observed several times in recent years with no accompanying volcanic activity, but this time, the tabloid reports, there are other ominous phenomena, such as 300-meter-long cracks that have recently formed along the Takizawa Rindo, a logging road on the mountain’s slope at around 1,800 meter elevation. This may signify a buildup of pressure from magma.

“While we don’t know when earthquakes will occur, the increased frequency of volcanic earthquakes serve as precursors of volcanic eruptions,” Hokkaido University volcanologist Makoto Murakami tells Shukan Gendai (April 13). “In some cases, eruptions have been known to occur soon after such earthquakes. We can’t be sure if the government’s evacuation measures would be enacted in time to minimize casualties.”

The distance from Fuji’s central cone to the New Tomei Expressway is just 18 km, putting it within easy reach of fist-size “bombs” of volcanic projectiles during an eruption. A spokesperson for the Central Nippon Expressway Company says a manual for dealing with emergencies foresees the possibility of lava from an eruption cutting off the two main highways between Numazu and Shin-Fuji interchanges.

Should you be unlucky enough to be driving on the Tomei at the moment of an eruption, the magazine advises, slow down gradually, pull off to the shoulder of the highway, and leave the lanes open for emergency vehicles.

“Judging from the various phenomena, the countdown to an eruption has begun,” Shukan Taishu (May 20) quotes a science reporter for a national newspaper as saying.

Ryukyu University professor emeritus Masaaki Kimura is in agreement, noting that while the March 11, 2011 earthquake relieved the built-up stress on the North America Plate, the Pacific Plate, whose tip lies close to the Izu Peninsula, continues to push against Honshu.

“The magma under Mount Fuji is being pushed up by this mighty force,” Kimura tells Shukan Taishu. “The possibility of an eruption can’t be ruled out.”

Japan has geologists who have devoted their entire careers to the study of Mount Fuji, and for such scholars observing Fuji blowing its top is considered the opportunity of a lifetime. For those of us living downwind, however, the experience won’t be very pleasant. And with Tokyo just 100 km away, the result could be disastrous.

“Airborne particles of ash can be drawn deeply into the lungs, inflaming the bronchial tubes and damaging the respiratory system,” says an unnamed risk consultant. “I suppose for infants and the elderly this could prove fatal.”

In addition to the impact on human health, the particles would damage computers and shut down or cripple much of the urban infrastructure, including the electric power grid, water system, city gas and the telephone network.

“Rain would turn the ash into a slippery slush, rendering roads unsafe for vehicles,” the risk consultant continues. “The railways would be affected as well. Distribution of goods would be paralyzed and supermarkets would run out of everything. Hoarding would occur.”

Mount Fuji has erupted at least 16 times since 781 AD, but has been quiescent since December 1707. The Hoei eruptions, named for the eponymous calendar era in which they occurred, emanated from a massive crater at 2,693 meters on the east-northeast slope, which is clearly visible today.

Yet as big as they were, points out Prof. Kimura, the 1707 Hoei eruptions only released built-up gases; no lava has flowed from the mountain since 864 AD. “Magma continues to build up,” he warns.

“If you were to make Fuji’s age analgous to human beings, it would still be in its adolescence,” Kimura tells another magazine, Shukan Bunshun (May 16). “In the future, the mountain will demonstrate its majestic force even more. I suppose that won’t be so far in the future. … So we have to recognize the dangers that come with it.”

We must not allow ourselves forget, concludes Shukan Bunshun, that Mount Fuji is not a “heritage” in the sense of an inanimate object passed along to the next generation, but is rather, even now, a living entity.

Big in Japan is a weekly roundup of topics covered in the vernacular press.

  • nobuo takamura

    “If you were to make Fuji’s age analgous to human beings, it would still be in its adolescence,” means that Mt. Fuji is as young and innocent as its age. When I was young and innocent as a human being, I was in the process of edifying myself influenced among many young and old. So will Mt. Fuji. No lava, nor pyroclastic flows!

  • Huge

    This article is filled with inaccurate information. Washington State experienced a major explosive eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. Much of the eastern portion of the state was covered with volcanic ash, in some places up to 30 cm deep. Volcanic ash is indeed very bad for motor vehicles, however, none of the other disastrous outcomes described are correct.
    - while ash is not healthy to inhale, neither is it generally fatal for infants or the elderly. It can generally be avoided by sheltering inside.

    - power and telephone systems would not be affected, except possibly in areas immediately around Fuji.
    - computers are generally inside buildings, thus not subject to exposure to ash.

    - ash would not affect gas or water distribution systems.
    - vehicles can drive as usual on ash-covered roads, although the intake of ash into engines would cause them to fail eventually.

    - even if local distribution were shut down in areas immediately affected, the rest of the nation would support those areas. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami affected a far broader area than any eruption of Fuji would.
    The “unnamed risk consultant” appears to believe that any eruption of Fuji would bring on the apocalypse. It’s simply wrong, and can best be described as fear-mongering and sensationalism.