Zhongshan Zhàn station is not in Wuhan, China. It is China’s Polar Research Institute on the eastern rim of Antarctica’s Prydz Bay. This deep estuary of Antarctica between the Lars Christensen Coast, and the Ingrid Christensen Coast, is at the downstream end of a titanic glacial drainage system, that originates in the East Antarctic interior. The research station sits next to Russia’s Progress Station and the Romanian Law-Racovita outpost. Antarctica is administered by the fifty-four (54) signatories to the Antarctic Treaty which China joined in 1983. It is here that China has installed equipment related to its satellite navigation system, Beidou, which is now operating more satellites than its American GPS counterpart. Himadri Station isn’t in Hyderabad in southern India. It is India’s permanent research outpost in Ny-Alesund which is a research town in Oscar II Land on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic, about 1,200 kilometres from the North Pole.
Faded are the days when only scientists from Cambridge and Oxford were the outliers in quest of futures and pushing the frontiers of knowledge. Indian scientists at Himadri are engaged in atmospheric, marine, geological and climate studies of the Artic. Unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic is not considered a “global commons” and the principle of sovereignty prevents external players from exacting significant gains in the region. Climate change-induced ice-melt in the Artic is paving the way for untapped hydrocarbon and mineral resources to be extracted with greater ease. Moreover, economic gains will be realised as a result of increased resource extraction and the exploitation of new routes that provide 40 per cent shorter distances between Europe and East Asia. Additionally, both activities will severely impact the health of the region’s marine biodiversity.
The Taymyr Coal Basin in the Artic is estimated to have about 225 billion tons of high grade fuel. Russian coal giants, Vostok Coal and Severnaya Zvezda have the lucrative production licences for this Basin. Moscow has invited New Delhi to be its partner in the geological exploration of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil in the Artic. Additionally, India needs about 70 million tons of high quality coal for its aluminium and steel industry. Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s minister of oil and natural gas along with Coal India (the world’s largest coal producing company), met with Russia’s Leonid Petukov, CEO of Far East Russia Investment and Export Agency, to discuss the sourcing of metallurgical coal, the development of infrastructure of Far East Russian ports and connectivity of these ports with Russian mining locations. The offtake of coal from Far East Russia will grow exponentially as coal from Far East Russia has an attractive price point, ease of availability, connectivity to ports and sea transport. India’s unsurmountable Narendra Modi visited Russia’s Far East and has agreed to open a maritime route from Chennai to Vladivostok. Despite the “Thunberg Turn” the Arctic Tundra is next.
While India and Russia are in the Artic, the Antarctic is a buzz with Chinese activity. China in Africa has deflected attention away from noticing that China is now a Polar Power. China plans to build its first permanent airport in the South Pole joining the US, Russia, Britain, Australia and New Zealand in having airfields in the Antarctic, which is swirling in silver, gold, platinum and coal. The airport will offer airspace management in Antarctica and logistics support to future scientific expeditions. Despite the geopolitical ramifications and the logistical challenges of constructing a hub amidst some of the most extreme conditions on the planet, China is staking its claim. The future belongs to those who dare to take it.
It is no ordinary task because the region is essentially a persistently moving platform of ice. The scientists, engineers and architects will be required to identify a site where the speed of this movement is at its slowest and, ideally, in a fixed direction. China hopes to exploit Antarctica’s rich reserves of energy and minerals, while also tapping into its oceanic biodiversity and shipping potential. Antarctica also represents a key domain in the areas of security and climate change research. Dome A is a region of about 20, 000 sq km that includes the highest elevations on the Antarctic ice sheet. China intends to inaugurate a sector under its management in Dome A to build an astronomical observatory despite Australia’s largely symbolic claim to the Dome. The proposed astronomical observatory is already a controversy, but the reasons of the fittest are always the best. The Antarctic is home to research stations from about twenty countries that have year-round operations on the continent. Last year China’s twin ice breakers the Xue Long and Xue Long 2, after crashing through 12-foot waves and shoving through 200 miles of ice floes docked on November 20, 2019 at Zhōngshān Zhàn. On that day, China became a Polar Power. As the earth warms, the possibilities for the extraction of oil, gas, coal and minerals are boundless. The climate crisis is now a mere forerunner to shorter shipping routes and the reasons of the fittest for strategic and economic advantage in the Arctic and Antarctica will always be best.