China reaps fruitful results in international polar expedition cooperation

By Liu Shiyao, People’s Daily

China’s 40th Antarctic expedition successfully concluded as Xuelong, the country’s first domestically built polar icebreaker, returned to a port in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong province on April 10.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s polar expedition. Over the past four decades, China has continuously strengthened its comprehensive capabilities in polar expedition and actively cooperated with relevant countries, making significant contributions to better understanding, protecting, and utilizing the polar regions.

As a roaring sound grew closer, a red and white Snow Eagle 601, China’s first fixed-wing aircraft for polar flight, touched down on the airport of the Zhongshan Station, a Chinese scientific research base in Antarctica.

This marked a major milestone of China’s 40th Antarctic expedition team, with the completion of an aerial scientific survey of ice sheet margins of the Queen Maud Land and the Enderby Land, a major international polar cooperation project.

The Antarctic ice sheet, a vast expanse of ice covering the continent, is experiencing mass loss due to global warming, creating uncertainty in predicting future sea level rise.

To calculate the mass loss, the key lies in gathering two critical statistics: the speed of ice movement and ice thickness at the margins of the ice sheet. The most effective way to obtain ice thickness is through aerial surveys using the airborne “ice radar.”

In 2021, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) established the RINGS Action Group (hereafter referred to as “the RINGS”) to collect data on ice thickness and sub-ice terrain along the margins of the Antarctic ice sheet through international cooperative aerial observations. So far, 82 scientists from 18 countries have joined the RINGS.

In 2023, the RINGS launched its first international collaborative program for aerial scientific exploration in the data-deficient regions of the Queen Maud Land and the Enderby Land. China was a major initiator of the program.

“The complex meteorological conditions at the margins of the Antarctic ice sheet posed a major challenge for the aerial survey. Besides, it involved extensive international communication and coordination across all aspects,” said Cui Xiangbin, a researcher with the Center for Polar Ice & Snow and Climate Change Research in the Polar Research Institute of China under the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources.

According to Cui, with a surveyed length of 7,200 kilometers and a total flight time of around 28 hours, the program successfully mitigated data shortages.

Following the completion of the program, China would share the observation data collected by Snow Eagle 601 with other countries and collaborate on joint research projects, so as to provide valuable information for scientists around the world to study the rapid changes of the Antarctic ice sheet and the rise in global sea levels.

Kenichi Matsuoka, chair of the RINGS and professor with the Norwegian Polar Institute, has expressed his appreciation to China’s 40th Antarctic expedition team for their valuable contributions in a recent email.

Besides, the Chinese team has carried out multiple international cooperation projects during the 40th Antarctic expedition.

At the end of December 2023, Zhang Nan, a member of China’s 40th Antarctic expedition team and professor with the College of Construction Engineering, Jilin University, obtained ice core samples with his team by the side of the Dålk Glacier in the Larsemann Hills in southeast Antarctica, about 25 kilometers away from China’s Zhongshan Station. Besides, they have drilled a 48-centimeter-long sample of subglacial bedrock. This marked an important breakthrough in Antarctic geological studies.

This breakthrough was jointly achieved by China’s Jilin University, China University of Geosciences, Beijing, and the All-Russia Scientific Research Institute for Geology and Mineral Resources of the Ocean.

“For more than two months, Chinese and Russian scientists worked hand in hand and fostered a profound friendship,” Zhang told People’s Daily.

According to Zhang, the successful retrieval of the subglacial bedrock sample marked the world’s first targeted geological survey and sampling of subglacial bedrock within the deep Antarctic ice sheet. In this process, Chinese and foreign researchers exchanged experience, learned from each other, and engaged in in-depth discussions on technical issues, he added.

On February 7 this year, China’s Qinling Station in Antarctica, the country’s fifth research station in the continent, started operation on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea.

As planned, the Qinling Station will collaborate with research stations from other countries, transform its marine laboratory into an international cooperation platform, and set a model of international cooperation in Antarctic research along the coast of the Ross Sea.

The polar scientific expedition holds immense importance and is a noble endeavor benefiting humanity. Ever since initiating polar exploration 40 years ago, China has been actively involved in almost all major international observation and research programs in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. It has also actively sent personnel to participate in Antarctic expeditions in other countries, while gradually expanding its international cooperation in the Arctic.

Chinese polar expedition members in Antarctica have always lived in harmony with their international counterparts, and have offered emergency international rescue assistance in times of need.


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