China Begins Its 40th and Largest Antarctic Scientific Expedition

ON 11/02/2023 AT 03 : 19 AM

On November 1, the People’s Republic of China launched three scientific research vessels off on a landmark project to understand the impacts of the climate crisis on the continent of Antarctica and perhaps other things.
China's newest Antarctica Research Station
One of the most important projects to be completed during China's 40th Antarctic Expedition will be the construction of its third permanent research facility on the continent.. This is a 3D rendering of what that base will look like. CGTN (Chinese State-Owned Media), Fair Use

Two of those vessels, the Xuelong and Xuelong 2, which translates in English to the names Snow Dragon 1 and Snow Dragon 2, headed out from their Shanghai base dock during daylight hours yesterday. The third, the cargo vessel Tian Hui, departed from Jiangsu Province at the port of Zhangjiagang.

All three are specially equipped research icebreaker ships.

The Xuelong icebreaker is the oldest of the three. It was originally built in 1993 at Ukraine’s Kherson Shipyard as an Arctic-class ship designed and built for Russia as a major ruggedized cold climate cargo carrier and supply vessel. During the construction process it was purchased by the PRC and ultimately completed in 1994 with its primary purpose as a polar research ship.

The Xuelong went through extensive upgrades in 2007 as part of a major mid-life refitting process. That included the installation of a modernized superstructure which at the time was intended to guarantee another 15 years of life for it, even if the harsh conditions of the Arctic. As of a third set of upgrades which were installed in 2013, it is now capable of a maximum speed of 18 knots (33 km/hour or 21 mph) in clear waters, and 1.5 knots (2.8 km/hour or 1.7 mph) when plowing through ice 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) thick. It is 167 meters (548 feet) long, 22.6 meters (74 feet) wide, and with a 9 meter draft (30 feet).

It has onboard laboratory space of 100 square meters (1,100 square feet), plus accommodations and facilities for 128 researchers or passengers. It is designed to operate with a crew of 34.

The second vessel which departed from the Shanghai base yesterday, is the Xuelong 2. Despite the similarity of name with the Xuelong, this is an entirely different craft. Its construction contract was signed in 2012 as the country’s first home-built polar research icebreaker, to be fabricated by the Aker Arctic, a Finland-based shipbuilder familiar with the needs of extreme cold weather travel. It took seven years from the contract signing to complete the vessel, on July 11, 2019. It cost  €5 million just to design and was tested in its entirety at China’s Jiangnan Shipyard.

It is considerably smaller than the original Xuelong, with a total length of just 122.5 meters (402 feet), though with a similar width of 22.3 meters (73 feet), and a near identical draft of 8.3 meters (27 feet), something that is important in transiting polar waters. It has a top speed of 15 knots (28 km/hour or 17 mph) when in open seas, and up to 3 knots (5.6 km/h or 3.5 mph), twice the speed of the original Xuelong, when breaking through ice. It is also configured as a Polar Class 3 ship with the capability of cracking through ice up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) thick, regardless of whether it is moving ahead or astern.

It can support a total of 90 personnel on board, including crew and all scientists. Like the Xuelong, it has its own onboard laboratory and research space.

The third ship in this expedition, the Tian Hui, is a general cargo vessel and was built in 2017. It is 190 meters (623 feet) long, a width of 28.5 meters (94 feet), and operating draft of 8.4 meters (28 feet), a value once again similar to that of the other two ships.

The three ships are carrying a total of 460 people for this 40th Antarctica Expedition of the People’s Republic of China. The China-based team will also be collaborating with other researchers from Australia and Norway throughout 5-month term of the voyage.

The researchers will also be supported with supplies provided to them by Australia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy, South Korea, and Chile.

These international scientific partnerships are especially important at a time when tensions of war on multiple fronts have exploded in multiple sectors in the Middle East in recent months, and more broadly across Europe since early 2022.

One of the most important of the projects to be completed during the trip is the construction of China’s third permanent research station in Antarctica. It currently has two others, the Zhongshan station and the Changcheng facility, which also goes by the name the Great Wall Station.

 In addition to those three, the PRC also has two temporary research stations in place on the continent.

The new facility, which will be built using construction supplies carried on the Tian Hui cargo carrier, will eventually support 80 expedition team members during summer in Antarctica and 30 during the winter. It is expected to be complete and operational by February 2024, long enough before the planned five-month term of the current expedition so it can be fully tested and begin sending data.

According to Sun Bo, the Party head of China’s Polar Research Institute, the base will be located along the coast of the east Antarctic, by the Ross Sea. It is an area of much interest to climate researchers because of rapid melting and other changes which have been accelerating there over the past few years, due to the climate breakdown.

Chinese officials say the main building was fashioned based on the constellation Crux. That is the bright landmark in the heavens that legendary Chinese Admiral Zheng He was said to have used to navigate the Ming treasure voyages which ran from 1405-1433. When completed, the main building in the new research station will provide a total of 5,244 square meters (56,500 square feet) for all needs, including living space and research equipment.

Sensing systems installed in the facility will feature ongoing sampling and monitoring of atmospheric conditions at the site. The research facilities will also include means for tracking marine, soil, snow and ice, sediment, and even space environmental changes along with biological ecology shifts on the continent over time.

During the 40th Antarctica expedition itself, researchers will be making observations and taking data regarding more detailed changes in how natural structures, habitats, and ecosystems in Prydz Bay, the Astronaut Sea, the Amundsen Sea, the Ross Sea in the west Antarctic, are changing as a direct result of the climate crisis.

How much of China's Antarctic project with a military purposes is unknown. Much of the American presence in Antarctica has been run by military contractors, with the current supply contractor being Leidos, formerly SAIC. 

The project is expected to conclude by the end of March 2024.