Chinese scientists set out from Shanghai on October 25 for China's 21st expedition to Antarctica, hoping to make it to the summit of Dome A, the highest point on the ice-covered continent. Located deep in the Antarctic interior, Dome A has a reputation for being dangerously inaccessible, and if the expedition is successful China will be the first country to enter the area by land.
This is the ninth trip to the southern polar region for the Xuelong (Snow Dragon), China's Antarctic expedition ship. It is carrying a team that is undertaking the most difficult mission to date in the frigid land.
Since Deng Xiaoping wrote an inscription for China's first Antarctic expedition in 1984 -- "To make due contributions for the peaceful use of the polar areas" -- the nation has made substantial advances in research and exploration of the region.
China now has two stations, Great Wall and Zhongshan, as well as its icebreaker, the Xuelong.
"Through 20 years of effort, China has made great progress in building scientific teams and observation and logistics support. Its achievements have been acknowledged by counterparts around the world," said Wei Wenliang, vice director of polar research for the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). Wei has led expedition and research teams to Antarctica eight times.
Although China was a latecomer to Antarctic research -- dozens of years behind more developed countries -- it first began to develop its Antarctic strategy in the early 1960s.
When the SOA was established in 1966, it received a mandate to begin its work in Antarctica "at the proper time."
In 1983, the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, passed a resolution to join the Antarctic Treaty as a formal member country. A year later, the country drew up its 12-year plan for expeditions to the region, to be undertaken according to the development of the nation's economy.
In February 1985, the Great Wall Station was opened on King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands in western Antarctica. Located at the 62 degrees south latitude, the station didn't make it into the polar circle. "When we built the station, China was not yet capable of building on the coastal Antarctic continent," recalled Wei.
Zhongshan Station, opened in January 1989, is on the continent, the eastern sector at the Larsemann Hills. "When China set up a station on the continent, it was entitled to become a negotiating country of the Antarctic Treaty, having a say in decisions related to Antarctic affairs," Wei said.
Over the years, China has steadily increased its investment in Antarctic research. The country spent 20 million yuan (US$2.4 million) on the first expedition, and now maintenance fees alone are 40 to 50 million yuan (US$4.8 to 6.0 million) annually. On top of that, China bought its expedition ships, established the Polar Research Institute in 1989 and built the Polar Research Center, which opened in September 2003.
From 2005 to 2010, China plans to spend 500 million (US$60 million) on renovating the Great Wall and Zhongshan stations. A domestic base for polar research will be built in Shanghai, and observation stations in both the Arctic and Antarctic will be renovated and expanded.
Three generations of Polar ships
The Xiangyanghong 10 was China's first Antarctic exploration vessel. Built by China primarily for general oceanic investigation, it was used for only one expedition -- to build the Great Wall Station -- because it was not made to sail in ice. It has now been renamed the Yuanwang 4 and is used to receive satellite signals.
China purchased its first icegoing ship, the Jidi, from Finland. A supply transport vessel, it could navigate a field of floating ice but was not an icebreaker. After six years in service, the Jidi was decommissioned.
The Xuelong is China's first icebreaker. Built in Ukraine in 1993, it is capable of breaking ice 1.2 meters thick while advancing at a speed of 3 knots. China spent 31 million yuan (US$3.7 million) to convert it into a transport ship for Antarctic expeditions. It replaced the Jidi in 1994 and has remained in service ever since.
With proper maintenance, the Xuelong can serve for 30 years. After the expedition to Dome A, the Xuelong will bid a temporary farewell to the ice to go into dry dock for a thorough makeover. Nearly 200 million yuan (US$24 million) will be spent on enlarging the laboratory and increasing high-end facilities as well as expanding fuel tanks and other upgrades. It will also be equipped with helicopter.
Advances in Antarctica
Among the most spectacular of China's findings in the polar region were the meteorites retrieved from the Grove Mountains. Two of the 4,800 meteorites Chinese scientists have examined from the area are believed to have traveled here from Mars, providing original study material for astronomers.
China frequently participates in international exchanges on Antarctic studies. Information on the region is open, and sharing of resources very helpful to developing countries, according to Wei. Those seeking to join the Antarctic Treaty now have many additional requirements, such as agreeing to protect the environment and wildlife, that make it more difficult to set up an observation station.
Polar research has become a hot topic in the international scientific community. The peculiar geographic positions and the unique natural environments of the poles provide ideal locations to study evolution and global climate changes. With China's scientific research elevated to a new high, China will be more active in polar research, mainly on environmental issues.
Although there are 47 signatory countries to the Antarctic Treaty, fewer than half of them have established stations and only a handful conduct regular expeditions. "China is one of them," said Wei Wenliang, "and now we are capable of launching a challenge on Dome A, the highest point on the continent. If we are developing in such a speed, we will soon catch up the developed countries."
(China.org.cn by Wang Qian, November 3, 2004 )