Now for news item seemingly inspired by James Bond films China plans an underwater lab far beneath the South China Sea. The news came in conjunction with the release of China’s new 5-year plan, the 13th of its kind. The new lab will sit at a whopping 9,000-plus feet in the South China Sea. The Chinese state that the lab’s purpose is scientific. Its exact function is somewhat vague, but is purportedly related to mineral extraction from ocean waters.
On a more ominous note, China has also said that the lab will carry “some military functions.” Whether this means that the entire lab, or just parts of it, will be a military installation of some kind, or whether it denotes military presence in the lab for security purposes, is unknown.
The whole rig will be designed to carry a dozen or so personnel, and will not only be moveable, but also able to sustain the crew for about a month at a time.
The planned build site is both scientifically and financially interesting, but also geographically challenging. The first and most obvious obstacle is the depth. While underwater labs are not new, creating one at this depth is always a major engineering challenge. Maintaining it over time is equally so. Typhoons and earthquakes both hit the area frequently as well.
The area is rich in natural resources. There are an estimated 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas buried in the ocean floor. Considering these resources, it’s tempting for any nation to invest in trying to develop it, and China has already spent more than $216 billion in research and exploration of the area. So while the feasibility of the project is perhaps dubious, it seems that the Chinese government intends to move forward.
Underwater research stations have been a part of submarine exploration since Jacques Cousteau’s Conshelf projects started in the 1960’s. The longest serving underwater research station is MarineLab in Key Largo, Florida, which has been in service since 1984. At present, there are only three official underwater research stations in operation worldwide.