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Polar venture to reach icecap
By Guan Xiaofeng (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-09-23 00:15

China is to start its 21st Antarctic expedition next month.

The major goal is to climb the highest icecap of the South Pole, said Wei Wenliang, a senior official who is in charge of organizing the expedition with the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration.

As preparation to build a permanent research station in inland Antarctica -- a project planned for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) -- a team of 10 Chinese scientists and two journalists will make a trip of 1,300 kilometres inland from Zhongshan Station on the southeast coast of the Antarctica to Dome A, the continent's highest icecap, 4,300 metres above sea level.

The 150-day journey will start in Shanghai, China's largest port, on October 25. The first stop is the Zhongshan Station on the Anctartic coast via the Indian Ocean.

Xuelong, a polar science research ice-breaking ship capable of piloting into the polar sea will carry the 135 expedition members.

Five women (three scientists and two journalists) will be on board.

"This expedition is going to be a milestone in the history of China's Antarctic exploration," said Wei.

Chinese scientists plan to conduct scientific experiments on the peak of Dome A and collect some ice samples. They will also put up a temporary weather observatory there.

Located far away from the coastline in the interior Antarctica, Dome A has a rigorous climate and a dangerous reputation. It has been named "the inaccessible pole."

The average temperature is minus 50 degrees centigrade in summer and minus 70 degrees centigrade in winter.

If the expedition is successful,China will be the first country to enter the area by land.

"The trip is an especially challenging one. The weather of the area is so harsh and unpredictable that we have requested other countries' stations to help in case of emergency," Wei said.

Wei said the final plan of the expedition, which includes 25 separate goals, was completed last week and the expedition is now in active preparation.

Members of the expedition have finished training in the high mountains of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where geographical conditions resemble that of the Antarctica.

"Though our equipment is not so advanced, our heroes and heroines are determined to make an all-out effort to meet the challenge to complete the tasks our motherland set for us," Wei said.

A lack of funds is perhaps another challenge the Chinese expedition has to face.

According to Wei, a total of 520 million yuan (US$63 million) is allocated by the Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-2005) to improve the infrastructure of China's polar exploration, which includes reconstruction of two Antarctic stations -- Great Wall Station and Zhongshan Station, rebuilding of the polar research vessel Xuelong and creation of a permanent base for polar exploration in Shanghai.

Besides, Antarctic expeditions receive annual funding of only 40 million yuan (US$4.8 million) from the country to maintain regular operations, which is far from enough.

"We think 70 or 80 million yuan (US$8.4 million to US$9.6 million) per year is ideal," said Wei. "We hope that all Chinese people, especially Chinese businesses, can give more support to China's cause of Arctic and Antarctic expedition."

So far, China has conducted four expeditions to the inland icecaps of the Antarctica with the third one in 1999 covering 1176 kilometres and getting close to Dome A.

China began its first Antarctic expedition in 1984 and built its first research station, Great Wall Station on the King George Island of the Antarctica that year.

The second station, Zhongshan Station, was established in 1989 on the southeast coast of the Antarctic's Mirror Peninsula. None of them are in the inland Antarctic.

China's Antarctic explorations have produced fruitful results in a variety of fields, especially in polar glaciology, polar upper atmospheric physics, polar bio-ecology and physical oceanography.

"Chinese people will make continued contributions to humanity's cause of peaceful exploitation of the Antarctica," Wei said.

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