China's New Research Station and the Quiet Rush to Claim Antarctica

In 2048, a very important international event will occur: The Antarctic Treaty, which stops countries from mining the continent's abundant resources, will come up for review. China—along with the US, the UK, and other countries—intends to be ready.

This weekend, China unveiled its fourth polar research station: Taishan, a 3,000-square-foot lab that can house up to 20 people at peak times. The building's unique shape has been compared to a lantern—in fact, the idea is to keep snow from impacting the sides of the structure during gales.

There's also a runway for aircraft, because Taishan is fairly far inland. According to CCTV, the entire thing took just 53 days to build—and it's only expected to last for 15 years, tops. After all, the half life for architecture on this frozen continent is notoriously short.

China's New Research Station and the Quiet Rush to Claim AntarcticaS

The construction of the base. Image: News.CN.

So, what's the big deal? China has a handful of other stations on the continent, after all, and is still lagging behind the US and the UK—though the country plans to build another station soon.

But countries with interest in Antarctica are investing in more than just scientific inquiry here. They're also investing in the plentiful resources—from oil, to precious metals, to fishing—that this currently-protected continent could someday provide them access to. So though we don't hear about it very often, Antarctica is the focus of a long, slow, political land grab.

China's New Research Station and the Quiet Rush to Claim AntarcticaS

China's New Research Station and the Quiet Rush to Claim AntarcticaS

Top: Polar expedition ship Xuelong on its way to the Chinese Zhongshan station. Bottom: China's Zhongshan Station in Antarctica. AP Photo /Xinhua, Zhang Zongtang.

"Land grab" isn't quite the word for it—rather, sovereignty on this icy continent is contested. That means that research stations serve two purposes: They're built for science, of course, but also to set down claims. There are other approaches, too—like the simple act of naming a place. The UK recently moved to name a giant chunk of the continent "Queen Elizabeth Land." Likewise, Quartz reports, Chinese mappers have named 359 places in Antarctica.

In this light, each research station is another dowel in the structure of a legal argument just beginning to take shape in the distant future. 34 years from now, when the Antarctic Treaty is being hotly debated (in what I can only assume will be the Galactic Senate) these stations will serve as evidence.

In Antarctica, China—along with the US, the UK, and every other country there—is playing the long game. Though, according to The Economist, the long game could be about to shorten considerably. Either way, keep an eye on this frozen landmass—it's hosting an international race that's about to heat up.