China’s Zhongshan Station Antarctic research base celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this week. Xinhua reports that some Zhongshan staffers are now heading home aboard the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong which is en route to Shanghai from the world’s southernmost continent.

Zhongshan Station, inaugurated in February 1989, was the second of four Chinese scientific research facilities on the Antarctic ice sheet built since the 1960s. Located in the Larsemann Hills by Prydz Bay in East Antarctica, near Russia’s Progress II Station and Romania’s Law-Racoviţă Station, Zhongshan is a logistics hub and setting off point for inland expeditions on the icy continent.

The station can accommodate 60 summer personnel and 25 winter personnel as a base for research on marine, glaciological, geological, and atmospheric sciences and for expeditions inland, such as missions to China’s Kunlun Station at Dome A.

A winter living compound at China’s Zhongshan Station. It now has 17 buildings with advanced telecommunications facilities, accommodation for scientists and comprehensive scientific labs
A meteorological signal receiver at Zhongshan station. Photos: Xinhua
Chinese icebreaker Xuelong. Photo: Xinhua

An upcoming Chinese expedition to Antarctica in November has kickstarted construction of China’s first permanent airport near Zhongshan station after almost a decade of planning, as China’s fascination for Antarctica grows. Work to select the airport’s location began years ago and the site was chosen in 2017.

According to the Chinese newspaper Science Daily, the new airport will be built 28 km from Zhongshan and the runway will be 1,500m long and 80m wide. It is hoped to provide a more reliable means of transport for scientists and staff working in the frigid, isolated region.

Zhongshan station is currently supplied by the Xuelong, but this can be cut off anytime due to frozen seas or severe weather conditions.

Antarctica has approximately 20 airports currently in operation. For the last three years, China has relied on Russian airfields to operate the Xueying 601, its first polar plane that is able to carry scientific observation equipment at a cruising speed of 380 km/h and has a range of 3,440 km.

The construction of a runway on a continent covered by a constantly moving layer of ice demands special measures, such as finding a location with ice moving as slowly as possible and in a fixed direction.

Chinese news outlet CGTN also notes that the builders must use a roller to compact the soft snow, which is a time-consuming process. Summer at the South Pole lasts from November to February, with temperatures rarely above minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 68 degrees Fahrenheit).

An aerial view of China’s Zhongshan station, opened 30 years ago and now being expanded, including the addition of an airport. Photo: Xinhua

China has plenty of experience building in Antarctica with two permanent stations and two summer stations currently in operation. In February, Chinese researchers also laid the foundation of the country’s fifth research facility, which is being built on Inexpressible Island in the far south of the continent.