Antarctica seen as vital source of future resources

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am

A black-and-white vessel sitting in a Shanghai shipyard is a hive of activity as workers repaint it bright red and prepare it for a critical journey to the bottom of the world.

The coat of paint is the last step in a six-month, billion-yuan upgrade in which seven upper decks were entirely rebuilt, the latest navigation and ship-control systems were installed, the size of the laboratories was tripled and almost all scientific equipment upgraded, and a new extreme-weather helicopter added.

This month, the 20,000-tonne ice-breaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon), the mainland's fifth Antarctic explorer in a decade, will set off on the 24th Antarctic expedition with a list of ground-breaking tasks. Among them is the drilling of an ice core that will tell the secrets of a million years of climate change, the setting up of the first satellite sensor networks in the region and the building of the first manned station on the continent's highest point, an area known as Dome A.

Scientists would also install full-sized seismic survey devices for the first time, which would analyse subterranean structures and aid in mapping such resources as oil and minerals buried beneath the virgin continent.

China sees the rich Antarctic as a vital future resource and has stepped up efforts to strengthen its foothold on the continent. Its ambition is undimmed by the fact that Antarctica is 12,000km away, or that Beijing is a relative newcomer, its first expedition landing in 1984.

It is an arid, forbidding continent with no permanent civilian settlements as opposed to scientific bases, a continent of great beauty, pristine wilderness and vast riches, but one of blurry boundaries disputed by a host of countries, especially those outside the 'Antarctic club'.

That club comprises the 44 nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, the legal framework that guides management of the territory. The treaty reserves the region for peaceful purposes, prohibits nuclear weapons and the disposal of radioactive waste, and bans military activities, except in support of science and other peaceful pursuits. But the treaty says nothing about how Antarctica's resources should be shared.

In the eyes of Zhu Jiangang , a key adviser to the central government on polar affairs, Antarctica is a treasure house of vital resources.

Even food could be found in abundance in the seemingly barren region, the Polar Research Institute of China researcher said.

The continent also has more than 220 types of natural resources, including iron deposits so large they could satisfy the world's demand for 200 years.

'Even the water - totally uncontaminated and enough for 7,000 years of drinking water - will be valuable in the future,' Dr Zhu said.

The rewards are enormous, but if China does not take action now, all could be lost, he said. 'Every country goes to the Antarctic carrying two flags: scientific research and environmental protection. But from the very beginning, the politics of territorial expansion and resource exploitation have been factors.'

Just as in space, the US has the largest presence in the Antarctic and Russia the second largest. A number of other developed countries, such as Japan, France and Britain, have all been quietly stepping up their involvement.

'The politics [of Antarctica] are similar to that in space - whoever first acquires the know-how to go and stay can make the laws and lay its claims,' Dr Zhu said.

China's Antarctic presence is still small - just two permanent bases, both in coastal areas, housing fewer than 200 long-term staff. Against this backdrop, Beijing has decided to set up its third permanent station, this time inland on Dome A. According to Yan Qide , a Shanghai-based institute researcher, next month's expedition will tread right into the heartland of Antarctica to choose a location for the station, conduct data-gathering surveys and test newly developed equipment.

Dr Yan said that in the past, mainland scientists had focused on theoretical issues. 'But now they have more interest and confidence in applied science than the older generations.'

And they are approaching Dome A with clear national goals in mind, according to Dr Yan.

'A key strategy is to select certain regions to carry out in-depth studies and to enlarge our presence,' he said.

Despite the developing international 'gold rush' to the Antarctic, commercial exploitation of its mineral wealth is probably decades away. However, Beijing believes that under Dome A lies not only potential abundant resources, but also a key to understanding one of the great political and social threats facing humanity - climate change.

The key is buried deep in the ice that has built up over thousands upon thousands of years. And scientists believe the planet's oldest ice - 1.2 million to 1.5 million years old - is to be found under Dome A.