Environment Field Note

A Beautiful Landscape, in a Crowded Box

Abstract: How do you feel connected to your environment? What problems do you think the environment in the United States has? Let’s look at the issues I have found here in South Korea and how the people are reacting to them. They might just be examples of our own distant future.

Introduction: My home state of Arkansas is often called “The Natural State” because of our low population, abundant parks, diverse wildlife, and very low levels of pollution. Moving to Korea was a drastic and shocking change for me! The cities have lots of tall buildings, crowds are everywhere and nature seems so far away.

I was a little heartbroken to see beautiful landscapes dotted with boxy factories and towering apartment complexes. I wondered why anyone would want to spoil the countryside like this! After I started researching how Koreans rely on their environment and the special problems they face, I began to understand why. Actually, almost every developed country in the world has the same problems. However, the small size of the country makes environmental challenges very unique for Korea.  Let’s take a look at a few of these challenges.

What makes this environment special or different?:

Do you know the population of your hometown? At the borders of many towns in America, there are signs that read  ‘Welcome to Townsville, Pop. 10,000’. So, these signs tell you the total number of people living in that town, and its official name.

Most people seem to think that population can tell you how crowded a city is. This is actually a little misleading. I think that population density can give you a much better idea of the living conditions of a city. While population is just the number of people living in a place, population density shows the number of people in relation to the overall land size of the city. So, let’s do a little math! One city has a population that is 50,000 people and the city is 10 square miles. Another city has 100,000 people but is 12 square miles. Which is more densely populated?

Windmills on the East Coast of Korea

Let me use the Korean capital, Seoul, for an example. The 2011 Korean Broadcasting System report notes that Seoul has almost ten million people living in it. The next most populous city in Korea is Busan and it has only around three million people.

If we take the population of each of these cities and divide them by their land areas, we can find the population density. The average population density in Busan is about 4,452 people per square kilometer! That looks like a lot of people, right? Don’t come to a conclusion too quickly! Seoul has more than 16,000 people per square kilometer!

The CIA Factbook shows that the country of South Korea has almost 50 million people in it and is about only 97,000 square kilometers large. That means Korea is smaller than New York State (141,000 square kilometers) and has more than twice its population!

Trying to support such an incredible amount of people in such a small area has been very hard on Korea’s environment. There are many ways that the land, water and people have changed as the population increases. Land is an extremely valuable resource because it is needed for building homes, offices, factories, and roads to link those places.  It is also needed for growing food to feed all the people!  What do you think are some of the challenges Koreans may face when they try to share this small amount of land and other resources?

What parts of this environment help people to live here?:

One great advantage for Korea is that it sits at the end of a peninsula. A peninsula is a piece  of land that is surrounded by water on three sides, with the fourth side connected to the mainland. This gives Korea easy access to  resources of the ocean such as seafood, minerals and transportation. The ocean that surrounds Korea makes trade with its neighbor countries very easy. Do you remember three bordering countries that I mentioned in previous articles? The biggest ones are Japan, China and Taiwan.

Peak of Taebeck Mountain Range

Throughout Korea, there are numerous rivers and lakes that provide essential fresh water to people, industries and farmland. Fresh water flows from springs and from  high mountain ranges such as the Taebaek Mountain Range in the northeast.

The climate of Korea is also relatively good for supporting people who live here. Have you heard of a climate zone? In school, I learned that the earth has three major climate zones that describe the average weather in a particular area. These climate zones circle the earth like wide belts and mark the areas of tropical, temperate, and polar climates.

Korea sits in the temperate zone. Most places in this zone enjoy four distinct seasons and have a growing season that is suitable for planting and harvesting ample crops. While Korea does have notably long and cold winters, it also has pleasant spring, summer and fall seasons. Rice and barley grow very well during these times.

What challenges do people face living in this environment?:

The biggest challenge facing Korea today is its own immense population. As the number of people in Korea grows, so does the demand for food, water, land and other resources. The problems that are related to overpopulation don’t increase in the same way population does. You may think of the problems for the environment doubling for each person that is born here in Korea.

A rooftop park helps students relax

Beginning with the land itself, there are a few problems to think about. The beautiful mountain ranges that serve as a wonderful home for many types of wildlife are not suitable for  agricultural use. Since there are so many mountain ranges in Korea, there is only a small amount that is good for growing food. To make problems even worse, some of the land that could be used for farming must be used for building homes or businesses instead. This leaves a very small portion of Korea’s total land to be used for agriculture!

Other natural resources like timber for paper or construction and oil for energy and plastics are limited in Korea as well. Due to how limited resources are, Koreans have created a strong import/export economy. They import food, oil, steel and plastics from other countries. On the other hand, they must produce something that others want to buy so they have the money to pay for those resources. To meet this goal, Korea turned to production and assembly industries.

Korea is now home to several major producers of electronics, automobiles and ships. I am sure you have heard of Samsung, LG, or Hyundai Motors. All of these Korean companies have large factories that create income for Korea, but they also pollute its environment. Industrial waste and the incredible amounts of trash and sewage produced by its cities have created horrible environmental hazards. Acid rain and toxins in lakes and rivers are becoming worse every year.

How have people been adapting to this environment?:

People are incredible! I am always amazed by how creative and resourceful people can be if they have to solve difficult problems. Korea is no exception. Korea is working on solutions to each of the problems I just talked about!

People use every bit of land!

To allow greater use of land, cities are planned to be very constricted. The buildings are built to be impressively tall instead of short and wide. The distance between important places throughout the city is often only a walk or subway station away. The subway and trains are also a way to conserve land that might be needed for wider roads if more people had to use cars. Fewer cars mean less air pollution from automobile engines and less industrial waste from producing more cars.

Energy demands are very high in Korea so coal, natural gas and nuclear power are often used. These products are expensive to import and are dangerous for the environment so Korea has begun working on several forms of “green” renewable energy. The plentiful lakes, rivers and beaches create great opportunities for hydroelectric power. Being near the ocean has another benefit as well. The strong ocean breezes that sweep over Korea are being used for generating power in many locations across the peninsula!

In my university city of Asan, I have seen two other renewable energy sources at work as well. The Asan World Botanical Gardens has long solar panels that capture the sun’s energy and use it to power water pumps and lighting. The air conditioning system was the most interesting part for me. It uses geothermal energy to keep the huge greenhouses cool in the hot summers.

Looking out over the city of Asan

Have you heard of geothermal energy before? Geothermal heating and cooling works because the inside of the earth’s crust is almost always a constant 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Long pipes are buried deep in the ground and water or some other fluid is used to pump heat from the surface into the earth or vice versa. This creates a very efficient system for temperature control.

Hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal energy are not the only ‘green’ solutions Korea is developing. Other, more people-oriented solutions like national park preserves, re-forestation and city-wide bike lanes are becoming more common as people recognize how important their connection with the environment really is.

Korea must face the fact that its environment is delicate and in great danger because they are in such a confined place. In the U.S., we still have large open spaces and abundant natural resources so we are able to ignore many of the same problems that Korea is having the most trouble with. However, the U.S population is rising and pollution is becoming a problem for us as well. Do you think we will ever have a similar situation to what Korea is facing now? What do you think we can do about it?

 

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