Chinese deep-sea surveys look for geological hazards in South China Sea

Liu Zhen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 05 2022 12:27 PM | Updated as of Jan 05 2022 12:47 PM

Chinese researchers have conducted deep-sea geological surveys in the disputed South China Sea that could provide valuable information on hazards for future oil and gas projects, according to state media.

The surveys were carried out in a geologically unstable area in the northwestern part of the waterway last month, China Science Daily reported on Tuesday.

Researchers from the state-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences made seven dives in the manned submersible known as Shenhai Yongshi, or Deep-Sea Warrior.

They collected observation data from the sea floor to shed light on geomorphological characteristics, as well as the triggers and causes of subsea geological hazards that could affect deep-sea oil and gas development projects in the area, the report said.

Geologist Li Wei, chief scientist on the mission, told the newspaper that a range of geological and geophysical data was collected.

"In particular, for areas where unstable landforms are developing on the sea floor, a number of in situ sediment and seawater samples were accurately collected, and first-hand images of modern sea floor landforms were obtained," Li said.

The team will now carry out detailed analysis on the data and samples as they try to find out more about the geomorphological characteristics and causes of geohazards in the South China Sea.

The researchers focused on a basin southeast of the Chinese island of Hainan, and a carbonate platform and trough near the contested Paracel Islands off central Vietnam, which are controlled by Beijing but also claimed by Hanoi and Taipei.

Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have claims to other parts of the South China Sea that overlap with China's. Beijing's claims to most of the waterway - where it has built artificial islands and become increasingly assertive - have been rejected by an international tribunal in The Hague as having no legal basis.

A busy shipping route, the South China Sea is also rich in oil and gas reserves - estimated at 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

That vast wealth of resources has made it a hotbed for disputes. In 2014, when a Chinese deepwater oil rig was deployed to a contested area near the Paracels, it triggered a stand-off and anti-China protests in Vietnam.

China has stepped up geological surveys in recent years. The manned submersible used in the latest dives, the Deep-Sea Warrior, was developed in China and can take three people to a maximum depth of 4,500 metres (about 14,700 feet). It has been used in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean for research missions since 2017.

In 2020, China's newest manned submersible, the Fendouzhe, or Striver, descended more than 10,000 metres (33,000 feet) to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean - the planet's deepest underwater valley - with three researchers on board.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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