China poles apart on missions to Arctic and Antarctic

Beijing's missions to the Antarctic have an economic motive, but those to the Arctic signal its concern about the consequences of climate change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 9:25am

A Hollywood blockbuster movie might have been responsible for Beijing's partial change of attitude to the North Pole.

Hitting cinemas in 2004, the American sci-fi disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow showed the deadly consequences of ice-melting in the Arctic with stunning visual effects.

The film was based on the theory that the melting ice, by changing the oceans' salinity, disrupted the North Atlantic's Gulf Stream current, triggering huge snow storms, among other disasters, that rampaged across the entire northern hemisphere and pushed the earth into a new ice age. According to Professor Qiao Fangli , deputy director of the First Research Institute of Oceanography under the State Oceanic Administration, state leaders watched the movie and asked scientists whether it could happen for real. The scientists told them it was possible within 50 years.

Eight years later, the scientific research icebreaker Xuelong returns to its home port in Qingdao , Shandong , late next month, marking the end of China's latest Arctic expedition. It is now in the Arctic Ocean.

The three-month voyage has racked up many achievements, including entry into unfamiliar waters and the deployment of China's largest research buoy in a faraway sea. But the mission's successes do not change China's long-term lack of interest in Arctic exploration. Beijing has sent 25 expeditions to the Antarctic but only five to the Arctic. The first Antarctic expeditions were carried out in the early 1980s, but the first voyage to the north had to wait until the late 1990s.

Xuelong, one of several vessels operated by the China Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA), has visited Antarctica almost every year since it was commissioned 20 years ago. It has headed to the Arctic at intervals of as long as four years.

According to the CAA's website it operates three permanent polar stations, two of which, both built in the 1980s, are in the Antarctic - the Great Wall Station on the Shetland Islands of West Antarctica and the Zhongshan Station on Larsemann Hills of East Antarctica. It also operates an observatory at the Kunlun station at Dome A, at one of the highest altitudes in the Antarctic and one of the most remote and inhospitable locations on earth.

The first Chinese base in the Arctic, the Yellow River Station on Norway's Spitsbergen archipelago, was built in July 2004.

Professor Qiao said the emphasis on the Antarctic was "indeed a bit unfair".

If China's huge investment in the Antarctic was driven by its desire for resources, the modest expeditions in the Arctic stemmed out of a fear of climate change, according to Qiao.

Former state leader Deng Xiaoping initiated the Antarctic project with a clear and straightforward order: to seize as much land as possible in the last untapped continent, find treasures under the ice, and prepare to exploit them when resources in the Old World vanished.

"These remain as our guidelines today," said Qiao, an expert in polar climate. "Because the Arctic has nothing but water, and the ice in winter gets so thick that it is almost impossible to pass through, our attention didn't turn north until global warming became a hot topic."

In 1994, China bought the Xuelong, an ice-breaking cargo ship, from a Ukrainian shipbuilder and converted it into a scientific vessel to replace the Jidi. The Xuelong ("Snow Dragon") set off from Shanghai on its maiden expedition to the Arctic.

Xinhua reported the core mission of the expedition was to study the role of the Arctic in climate change and its impact on Chinese weather. Though the explorers returned with "crucial discoveries and valuable data", the next voyage to the Arctic did not take place until 2003, and the third in 2007.

Just as the scientific community began to despair that the four-year intervals would undermine their scientific programme, the government announced a fourth Arctic expedition would be launched in 2010.

More and more scientific evidence has emerged in recent years to strengthen the melting-ice theory, according to Qiao.

"We are gravely concerned about it now," he said. "Subtle changes in Arctic environment will have an impact on China's climate systems. Even the strengthening of typhoons that hit our country this year could be a result of abnormal Arctic weather. The Arctic is a magnifier that enables us to detect some important signals of abrupt climate change."

The fifth voyage reflects the fact that fears over climate change are deepening. For the first time, Xuelong took a whole new course that went so far into the polar ice that they had to follow a nuclear-powered ice breaker hired from Russia.

Desperately in need of first-hand data to enhance meteorological models for weather and climate forecasts, Chinese scientists raced to collect as much information as possible on the Arctic atmosphere, ice, surface and submarine currents in regions that they had never visited before, according to Xinhua.

Also for the first time, the researchers released and activated a giant buoy as tall as a five-storey building in the Norwegian Sea at a spot where they believed it could capture delicate signals of climate change. The buoy, weighing 15 tonnes, can run for years without maintenance on solar and wind power. It will gather a large volume of data to be beamed back to China for scientists to study.

Professor Ma Deyi , chief scientist of the expedition, said the buoy would play a key role in China's national security.

He said that in recent years China had gone through some abnormally stormy winters and dry summers, likely caused by the abnormalities of Arctic climate. This hit the economy and threatened social stability.

"Strengthening our Arctic observations can increase our ability to fight climate change," Ma said.

But future Arctic voyages face several obstacles. "The biggest problem is money," Qiao said. Although polar exploration funds had risen, the total was still far behind that of developed countries such as the US.

As the government's emphasis was still on the Antarctic, limited funding for Arctic expeditions had restricted the scale and scope of research.

"For instance, we have far less buoys than those deployed by the United States, and that makes our understanding of the world's oceans pale in front of our American colleagues," he said.

The second hurdle was logistical. China has only one ice breaker. The government has commissioned another one but an official at the State Oceanic Administration said that when completed in 2014 it would mainly go to the Antarctic and would not have the capability to enter the North Pole in winter.

This was because Beijing did not want to intimidate Russia, which regarded the Arctic as its home turf.

"Our emphasis, as always, will be the Antarctic," Qiao said.