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China strengthens foothold at Earth’s poles

Updated: Jan 25,2016 8:11 AM     China Daily

Two researchers from the Chinese Antarctic Center of Surveying and Mapping conduct a leveling survey near China’s Zhongshan Station in Antarctica.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

Surveying, mapping play key role as foundation for further research in extreme environment

An ordinary person might want to go to Antarctica to experience extreme cold, witness the midnight sun or get close to quirky penguins.

But something else is more important, though may not seem sexy. That’s surveying and mapping the vast frozen continent.

It is actually a critical job for researchers.

“Surveying and mapping comes first for research in polar regions, both south and north,” said Li Fei, director of the Chinese Antarctic Center of Surveying and Mapping at Wuhan University in Hubei province.

The center is one of the leading Chinese institutions on surveying and mapping in polar regions.

Li, who is also a vice-president of the university, visited the South Pole once and the North Pole twice. The experience may be rare for leaders of Chinese universities, but it’s quite ordinary for researchers at the center, Li said.

Founded in 1991, the center has sent more than 100 people to participate in China’s polar research efforts-32 in Antarctica and 12 in the Arctic region.

Wang Zemin, deputy director of the center, has taken part in polar research expeditions eight times-four for each pole.

“As surveying and mapping staff, we are there mainly for two tasks,” Wang said.

“One is to measure geographic positions and draw maps, which is the foundation for all further scientific research. The other is to observe and get to know more about the polar regions, in order to monitor environmental or climate changes across the globe.”

People often say that global warming will lead to the melting of snow and ice in polar regions, which will result in a rising sea level and make an already bad global environment even worse, Wang said.

“But we don’t totally buy such causes and consequences, because although the snow and ice of some places is melting, in other places it is accumulating.”

The current research focus of the center is to figure out whether there are any cause-effect relationships in various phenomena, said Li, the director. “This is a major research angle for us in the following five years.”

It is well known that polar researchers are likely to encounter multiple difficulties and dangers in their work.

Apart from the lonely life and the not-so-tasty food, researchers may also face such risks as falling into crevasses or being blown away by the strong polar wind. Their lives can be at risk, Wang said.

Yang Yuande, 34, an associate professor at the center, nearly died after falling into an ice crack when he was working in Antarctica in late 2012. Fortunately, he said, he was able to grab the edge of the crack and climb out with the help of colleagues, keeping China’s death record at zero for polar region research.

But the difficulties and dangers have not stopped more members of the center, male and female, from heading to the poles.

Zhou Chunxia, 39, was the first female member the center sent to Antarctica. In late 2000, when she was a doctoral student at the center, she stepped onto the South Pole and spent a summer in the region.

“It wasn’t that scary for me to work in Antarctica because I spent most of my time working at the Changcheng Station,” Zhou said, referring to what has been dubbed the Great Wall Station, China’s first research station in Antarctica. “But that doesn’t mean working there is easy or relaxing. You have to work hard, and you also have lots of obstacles to overcome-like homesickness.”

Zhou is now a professor of remote sensing technology and applications at the center.

The good news is that research conditions in the polar regions have improved greatly in recent years and have met many of the researchers’ diverse needs, said deputy director Wang, adding that a good example is the improvement of the communication system.

“In the past, our polar researchers could contact their families only using a maritime satellite phone, which costs several dollars a minute,” Wang said.

“Now the Internet is accessible there, allowing researchers to keep in touch with their families and friends through QQ, an instant messaging service-although the speed is not very good,” he said.

The use of fixed-wing aircraft has also added convenience to surveying and research in polar regions, said Zhang Shengkai, an associate professor at the center who took part in China’s measurements of Dome A, the highest ice feature of Antarctica at more than 4,000 meters above sea level, in 2004 and 2005.

Zhang said previous polar region research used helicopters, which could carry only a dozen people and fly a few hundred kilometers.

“Now fixed-wing aircraft can carry more people and equipment and fly longer distances. Such aircraft can be used to take aerial photos and to conduct a series of measurements and surveys, which will definitely improve China’s ability in polar region research,” Zhang said.

Recently, China’s research team was reported to have achieved three breakthroughs in Antarctic research.

“We are all looking forward to generating more high-level scientific achievements,” Zhang said.

Survey center’s major achievements

1. The Chinese Antarctic Center of Surveying and Mapping used remote sensing in its work, which was awarded the second prize in the National Award for Progress in Science and Technology in 1998. It also set up a complete research system in fields including Antarctic geodynamics, Antarctic gravity fields, ice and snow environmental change in Antarctica and sea level changes in the Antarctic Ocean.

2. The center applied 3S advanced technology-remote sensing, a geographical information system and a global positioning system-in its environmental research and studies of crust movement in the polar regions. Using the technology, the center was able to map some places where it’s difficult to establish control points on the ground, such as the Antarctic inland ice sheet. The research won the first prize in the Hubei Provincial Science and Technology Progress Award in 2004.

3. The center set up four GPS monitoring stations at the South Pole and North Pole and established an information-based surveying and mapping system, making it possible to obtain and transmit data reliably. The center drew more than 40 maps of poles in different dimensions. These achievements won the first prize in the Award for Surveying and Mapping Science and Technology Progress in 2010.

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