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Liu Xiaohan: Chinese Scientists in the Antarctic

Published: 2011-04-01

On the evening of March 29, the 2011 BNU library expert lectures series was ushered in with a report on China’s Antarctic expedition by CAS Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research Fellow Liu Xiaohan.
The lecture was illustrated, by photography of rare Antarctic scenery, significant scientific expedition images, and illustrations of scientific data.

I. The natural environment of the Antarctic

Liu began his lecture against the backdrop of the familiar deep blue ice landscape of the Antarctic. Using remote sensing maps, Professor Liu first briefly reviewed the history of China's Antarctic expedition, going on to show a less well-known Antarctic. He discussed the fact that China's earliest station in the Antarctic is the Great Wall Station, in the northwest corner of Antarctica, and he went on to explain that Zhongshan Station, a standard Antarctic research facility, was established at the South East pole in 1990. Then, in 1998, China began to advance inland. In December 1998 the first expedition to the Grove Mountains was completed, and finally, in 2009, Kunlun station was established at the highest point of Antarctica’s Dome A.

Professor Liu then introduced several key features of the natural environment of the Antarctic:

1. Cold. The Antarctic lowest temperature record is -89.6 ° C.
2. Dry. In extreme low temperatures, moisture can form ice crystals, so the atmosphere is very dry.
3. Wild Wind. The Antarctic has the structure of a huge ice sheet, and the annual average temperature is 20 degrees lower than in the Arctic. The air cools down and forms the Antarctic katabatic wind, which moves relentlessly toward the coast. The maximum wind speed is 100m / s (compare this with the wind speed of a scale-12 typhoon, 32.6m / s). So the Antarctic wind speed is extremely powerful.
4. Polar day and Polar night. At the South Pole, the usual 365 days a year we experience become a four-month day and a four-month night, two-month-long early mornings and two-month-long early evenings.
5. No direction. All directions here are North.

The special natural environment in the Antarctic affords scientific expedition teams many different experiences, among which are the beautiful Antarctic aurora, which form after a solar wind, and after which the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere can be studied.

Many animals also survive in the Antarctic, including skuas and seals, among others, and among which penguins are the best known. There are seven kinds of Antarctic penguins, Professor Liu explained, and the Emperor Penguin is the most beautifu. The Emperor tends toward 60 cm in height and 60 kg in weight and is of docile temperament and great strength. During the breeding season, the others concentrate on the Emperor Penguin, after which a "Kindergarten" of penguins wait for their parents to come back to feed them.

II. Antarctic politics and diplomacy

The area of the Antarctic is one-and-a-half times the size of China and is rich in natural resources, including oil, natural gas, and iron ore. For much scientific research, the Antarctic also plays an important role that cannot be replicated in the middle and low latitudes. Therefore, China’s Antarctic expedition is important, although China is a latecomer to the region. (We first set foot on Antarctica in 1984, and the 27th expedition team will come back soon.)

Early in the last century, around 1911, the United States, Britain, Norway, France, and Japan, among others, each began setting foot on Antarctica, with the main purpose of declaring territorial sovereignty. The United States also established a station at the South Pole. Countries making territorial claims one after another even led to small military conflicts, which in turn triggered the United Nations Organization "Antarctic Treaty" (now called "the Antarctic Treaty System") to establish two foundation principles for Antarctic expedition: Peace and Science. The national rights and interests of countries also triggered political and diplomatic struggle in the Antarctic as well as the disputes of the interests behind the science. The current rules of the game are that the country in the process of doing scientific investigation and achieving actual results has priority.

III. Hot areas of international Antarctic research

Professor Liu said that these days, even though China can be called the big guy in Antarctica, we still cannot be called the South Pole power. The United States is also a leader there.
Professor Liu explained that China’s first expedition to Antarctica was by Xiangyanghong 10, which could not break through the ice. We then came home and over time, with national support, we acquired a Polarstern, an anti-ice boat. Now we have the icebreaker, Xue Long, which is one of the best of the international equipment.
Liu then introduced the expedition accomplishments and explained the main directions of scientific research.

1. Zhongshan Station expedition

After the Zhongshan Station was established, our expedition should include: geology research, snow and ice research, auroral research, ionospheric sounding, ancient environmental studies, biological research, tidal observations, seismic zone observations, and so on. Moving inland, China arrived at the Grove Mountains in 1998 and at Dome Argus in 2009. The expedition team conducted scientific studies in difficult conditions by snowmobile, using sleds to move fuel, food, and equipment inland, and returning with many specimens.

2. Kunlun Station expedition

The present Kunlun Station is constantly undergoing expansion. Its main characteristics are that it is environment-friendly and well-insulated. It is comparable to the Belgian Green Station.
On completion of the Kunlun Station, the current research will focus on the deep ice core, the most important means of studying the Antarctic paleo-environment. Because Kunlun Station is located on the highest point of the ice sheet, which is more than 4,000 meters thick, this is the oldest ice core, and so changes in the paleo-environment over millions of years can be studied. There will also be a focus on astronomical observations. On the highest point of the ice sheet, where there is no wind and conditions are dry and where there is a high degree of atmosphere transparency, the location is ideal for astronomical observations. Another focus will be on the mountains below the ice. If successful, the Station will be the first to obtain rock samples from under the Antarctic ice sheet. From a scientific point of view, these three tasks are all world-class efforts.

3. The current scientific research in Antarctica includes the following:

(1) Environmental Science issues: the main reason for global warming and the human capabilities; the hole in the ozone layer and excessive ultraviolet rays; more than 200 sub-glacial lakes in the Antarctic, half of which are living lakes, with environments similar to Mars, Jupiter 2, etc; ancient living species and ecosystems; testing and research on large-scale ocean circulation and atmospheric convection.
(2) Resource science issues: Antarctic krill, the last protein database we have; the Antarctic continental shelf is also rich in oil, mineral, and gas resources.
(3) Basic issues, including tectonic evolution, relationships with other continents, South Pole neutrino detection, astronomical observation, auroral research, Southern Ocean physical oceanography and marine chemistry, and animal and human medical research on viability under extreme conditions.

IV. The main achievements of the Chinese Antarctic expedition

1. Our gold medal

Among our accomplishments to date, Professor Liu discussed leading research, including: (1) Qin Dahe, who traverses the Antarctic, sampled the changes in the composition of the entire Antarctic ice sheet; (2) tectonic studies: our geologists first discovered that the shield of the SE polar of the Antarctic was formed half-a-billion years ago; (3) research on the compound eye of krill: through this study we estimate the average life span of krill and resolved issues regarding its availability; (4) study of the afternoon aurora; (5) paleo-ecologic studies at the Great Wall Station: changes in temperature and penguin populations over 3,000 years; (5) Grove Mountains meteorite recovery, the amount of which ranks third in the world; (6) research on the paleo-climate ice sheet advance, and retreat of the Grove Mountains.

2. Our potential gold

This includes Dome A deep-ice drilling, astronomical observations, sampling of the Ganbocaifu ice mountains, looking for the lake under the ice of the Grove Mountains, and Grove rock base earthquake observation.
According to the U.S. WOS platform statistics, China's paper on the Antarctic shows a rapid growth of publishing in the SCI, and Nature, Science also has many articles. As China has become stronger, so has our scientific investigation.

V. Grove Mountains Adventure: daily work and life of the Chinese Antarctic expedition team

In 1998, the Chinese expedition team began moving inland.
The Grove Mountains are situated on 3,200 square kilometers of blue ice. There are 64 nunataks. The wind is strong here, and after years of wind erosion, even granite is broken down. With the constant action of scraping by glaciers, the mountain has become steep. Storms are common here, and the unique natural environment creates unique formations, like ice cores, moraine embankments, glacial erratic boulders, and so on.
Initially, there were just four members with a snowmobile in the scientific expedition team, and they endured the hardships of isolation for two months. This was the first adventure in the Grove Mountains area. Now, in accordance with the "Antarctic Treaty system," Grove Mountains has become a special protected area of China.
During Antarctic expeditions, ice cracks are the biggest security risk. They can be up to 2,000 meters deep and can be covered by soft snow bridges, causing a dangerous trap. Fortunately, there has been no serious incident because, from the outset, team members have been cautious and have worked together in solidarity. Also, in the early days conditions were tough. For example, to conserve energy and water resources, our expedition team could use only two paper towels a day.
Near the Grove Mountains there are the signs that glaciers melted and froze again, which tells us that when the ice melted, the temperature of the Earth was at least ten degrees higher than it is now. The different melting time of glaciers exerts different influences on human beings. This is currently a big issue.
In addition, it is easy to find meteorites in the Antarctic, first because meteorites are obvious on large glacial areas, second because meteorites can last a long time after falling to Earth. Over time, due to glacial activity, the meteorites hidden deep in ice have been moved closer and closer to the surface, have then been finally exposed, and then have gradually accumulated where mountains blocked glacial movement. Adding to this the dozens of peaks that pierce the ice cap in the Grove Mountains, a region rich in meteorites is created and affords good conditions for future research.
In the Grove Mountains, we also carried out a comprehensive study of the situation of "from zero to high to declining" of the Antarctic ice sheet over three million years, which is also the latest research result in the area.

Professor Liu concluded that the main theme of international Antarctic research is now global warming, which is a very complex scientific issue and requires further research to reach consensus and/or conclusion.

Expert Profile:

Liu Xiaohan is a Fellow of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the CAS. As a young man, between 1968 and 1972, he worked in the rural / mountainous areas of Tibet. Later, he graduated from the Chengdu Geology Institute and received a Master’s and Ph. D. from the Department of Geology at the France Languedoc University of Science and Technology. Over 27 years he has engaged in research on geological structures for the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has undertaken a number of research projects, including for the National Science Foundation, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Ministry of Science. He has published 161 scientific papers.
Liu had been to Antarctica seven times and participated in the construction of the Antarctic Great Wall Station and was awarded second-class merit citations. He has contributed much in the areas of tectonic studies, meteorite recovery, and the Antarctic inland paleo-climate environment. Now he acts as the permanent representative of China to the Working Group of Earth Sciences of the International Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).

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