China Sends Flotilla of Research Vessels to Complete Antarctic Station

People attend the launch ceremony of China’s first domestically built polar icebreaker Xuelong 2, or Snow Dragon 2, at a shipyard in Shanghai, China September 10, 2018. Picture taken September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

China has launched its most extensive Antarctic expedition to date, deploying two icebreaker research vessels and a cargo ship with over 460 personnel on board to accelerate the construction of its fifth station on the world’s southernmost continent.

The primary focus of this ambitious mission is the establishment of a research station on Inexpressible Island, a desolate and windswept outpost situated near the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean. This bay is named after a 19th-century British explorer and holds significant scientific potential.

Work on the first Chinese station in the Pacific sector began in 2018 and is expected to facilitate research on the region’s environment. This marks another milestone in China’s growing presence in the Antarctic, with the nation already operating four research stations established between 1985 and 2014. A U.S.-based think tank estimates that the fifth station could be completed as early as next year.

The new facility is expected to include an observatory equipped with a satellite ground station, which will enhance China’s capabilities for accessing the continent. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted in a report that this expansion would help China “fill in a major gap” in its Antarctic research infrastructure.

Moreover, the location of the station on Inexpressible Island offers the advantage of collecting signals intelligence over Australia and New Zealand, as well as telemetry data from rockets launched from Australia’s Arnhem Space Centre. Despite international concerns, China has consistently denied allegations that its Antarctic stations would be used for espionage.

Two icebreaker research vessels, Xuelong 1 and Xuelong 2, meaning “Snow Dragon” in Chinese, departed from Shanghai with predominantly personnel and logistics supplies on board. The cargo ship, “Tianhui” or “Divine Blessings,” departed from the eastern port of Zhangjiagang, carrying construction materials essential for the station’s development.

The five-month mission encompasses an extensive survey to assess the impact of climate change in the region. In addition to constructing the new station, the icebreakers will conduct environmental surveys in Prydz Bay, the Astronaut Sea in southeast Antarctica, and the Ross Sea and Amundsen Sea in the western Antarctic.

This mission marks China’s 40th expedition to the Antarctic and will involve collaboration with other countries, including the United States, Britain, and Russia, for logistics support. The scientific community and the international community will be closely watching China’s efforts in the Antarctic as they continue to expand their presence in this critical region.