China’s Antarctic Exploration: 1984-2014

In June 1983, China became one of the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, and the country’s first Antarctic expedition team set off from Shanghai in November 1984. Two ships, China’s first 100,000-ton-class oceanographic research vessel the Xiangyanghong No. 10 and the salvage ship J121 that provided logistic support, carried 591 scientists, construction workers and crew members, along with 500 tons of construction materials to its southernmost destination. The team needed to sail the vast Pacific Ocean, so passing through 93 latitudes and 180 longitudes, within one month. The entire voyage exceeded 23,000 nautical miles.

The team arrived on King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands in western Antarctica, in December 1984. Researchers and workers spent the next two months building the Great Wall Station – China’s first Antarctic research station. The region’s extreme climate exerted extraordinary physical and mental demands on construction workers. The Great Wall Station is on the Fildes Peninsula in western King George Island facing the Great Wall Bay, a small inlet of Maxwell Bay to the east. The location encompasses a broad bay area and deep sea, and the snow-covered mountains behind it provide a reliable water resource.

In October 1985, China became a consultative party to the Antarctic Treaty, which gave the country a say in decisions related to Antarctic matters. In June 1986, China became a formal member of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).

Zhongshan, China’s second research station, named after Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan), known as the father of modern China, was completed in February 1989. The station’s location on the southeast coast of Prydz Bay on the Larsemann Hills, hundreds of kilometers away from the Amery Ice Shelf and Prince Charles Mountains in the southwest, makes it ideal for projects concerning aeronomy and aurora research, and investigations into glaciology, geophysics, meteorology and mineral resources. Zhongshan Station also acts as a center for China’s geological and inland ice sheet research as well as a base for collecting meteorite samples.

A research station is a support platform for scientific investigations and exploration. The number of stations built one after another in the region enables scientists to carry out extensive and in-depth research on the South Pole.

China established its Polar Research Institute in Shanghai in October 1989. It provides an advanced platform for polar research and experiments and strong logistical support for Antarctic and Arctic expedition teams. The institute also administrates information relating to polar studies.

A further step in China’s foray into the Antarctica came in January 2009, with completion of the Kunlun Station on Antarctica’s Dome A – Antarctica’s highest elevation. Kunlun signifies China’s advance towards the Antarctic inland. At present, the living and research sections of the Kunlun Station can accommodate 15 to 20 people conducting summer explorations.

Leap-frog Development

China was a latecomer to Antarctic research – nearly 100 years behind developed countries. In the past three decades, however, the nation has made substantial advances in research and exploration of the region. The support system for China’s current Antarctic exploration consists of one icebreaker – the Xuelong, aka Snow Dragon – its three research stations, the Great Wall, Zhongshan and Kunlun, and one center – the Polar Research Institute of China. Its achievements have been acknowledged by counterparts around the world, and China is an active and extensive participant in international polar affairs.

According to Wei Wenliang, who led expedition teams to Antarctic on seven occasions, it took China less than 30 years to reach a level of polar studies that took developed countries at least 50 years to achieve. More than 2,000 Chinese scientists have been sent to the South Pole to undertake various types of research, some of them on winter explorations. They have conducted detailed studies in such fields as atmospheric sciences, space science, geological science, marine science, and satellite remote sensing technology. These investigations have entailed the collection of abundant specimen and observation data. Antarctic meteorite specimens, whose amplitude ranks third in the world next only to Japan and the U.S, are the most spectacular finding in the polar region. China has moreover made remarkable achievements in its research into aeronomy, Antarctica geology, and krill ecology.

The nation has also made rapid progress in improving its research facilities. Since 1984, five expedition ships – the Xiangyanghong No. 10, J121, Haiyang No. 4, Jidi, and Xuelong – have sailed to the South Pole. Among them, the Xuelong has been upgraded twice. It is now China’s most advanced icebreaker. The ship is equipped with state-of-the-art navigation, orientation and autopilot systems and advanced marine science laboratories. The Xuelong also owns a platform and hangar big enough for two helicopters. These high-end facilities significantly expand China’s research and logistical support capacity during expeditions.

Completion of the Kunlun Station signals China’s further inland research. A fleet of snowmobiles that can travel through the ice and snowbound inner areas has consequently been assembled. Back in China, a domestic base for polar investigations and a specialized wharf for the Xuelong icebreaker have been set up in Shanghai. They constitute a sound foundation for China’s polar explorations.

Today, the Great Wall station area has been expanded to 2.5 sq km, and includes 10 accommodation, scientific research, meteorology observation, electricity generation and storage buildings. The Great Wall and Zhongshan stations can accommodate 60 people for summer research and 20 for winter explorations. There are plans to upgrade and expand Kunlun to make it a permanent station that accommodates researchers during winter.

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