The Old Man and the Yellow Sea
For yet another year, Jiang Wenkai spent China’s National Day on Qianliyan, a remote island in the Yellow Sea. As chief of the Qianliyan Marine Environment Monitoring Station, under the Ministry of Natural Resources, he can hardly recall how long it’s been since he spent it anywhere else.
This time, though, at least the weather was clear. The winds and waves were calm, birds migrated as planned, and stars shone at night. It wasn’t much of a holiday gift, but it was good enough for 55-year-old Jiang.
Since he began his career in hydrometeorological observations 39 years ago, this tiny island and the vast expanse of water surrounding it have become his life’s work — a second home where he is stationed for most of the year.
Qianliyan is a rock located on the continental shelf 55 nautical miles from Qingdao in the middle of the Yellow Sea. It has a surface area of 0.135 square kilometers. There’s no fresh water, no electricity, no permanent residents, and virtually no soil — just rocks. All supplies are brought by ships.
According to the North China Sea Bureau of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Qianliyan is located the furthest from the shore and in the harshest conditions among any monitoring station in northern China.
But its key geographical position along a major maritime transportation route fills a gap in data across the central Yellow Sea. Therefore, it plays a crucial role in issuing accurate and timely maritime warnings in the northern maritime territories of China, especially those concerning tidal surges.
For this reason, it has been listed as one of China’s “Fundamental National Transmission Stations.”
“It takes dedication to work here. Our data is shared throughout the world and contributes to global atmospheric surveys. Its quality reflects on our nation as a whole,” says Jiang.
He devoted his prime years to this station, withstanding long bouts of loneliness and hardship. As he rose through the ranks from observer to station chief, he witnessed the development of hydrometeorological observation in China. In September, the ministry named Jiang as an “Outstanding Nature Guardian.”
Recently, when ships have been docking at the island, Jiang often recalls a fateful morning 39 years ago. Then aged sixteen, he responded to an open recruitment ad, boarded a supply ship that sailed toward the rising sun, and, upon arriving at the island, leapt onto its rocky shore.
More than a dozen elements of data are collected at this station each day. And because it’s located so far from the mainland, the surroundings are relatively free from human interference, making the data some of the most reliable for storm predictions in the northern sea.
The island is also a frontier post for marine disaster prevention and mitigation. In the event of earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons that travel north and affect the Yellow and Bohai seas, the first-hand information obtained at Qianliyan provides an important scientific basis for disaster preparation along the coastline.
In September, the temperature and salinity well built only last year was struck by the massive Typhoon Plum Blossom, preventing the automatic equipment inside from transmitting real-time updates.
However, it is crucial that temperature and salinity observations remain uninterrupted. So now, Jiang and his coworkers have a new daily task: Multiple times a day, they must collect samples of the sea water, test for salinity, and transmit the data manually.
Such manual tasks are all in a day’s work for Jiang. For more than a decade after he started at the station, the paper for the tide gauge had to be changed manually; and to this day, workers still need to inspect equipment and carry supplies.
Observations have been gradually automated in recent years. Employees revert to collecting data manually when the equipment becomes faulty. “When the waves swell, you have to tie yourself to the well, or you get swept away,” he says.
In the ’80s and ’90s, workers were asked to protect the data at any cost. When the seas were rough or during a typhoon, that really meant putting their lives in fate’s hands.
Jiang recalls one particularly violent typhoon, when huge waves crashed into the well — where measurements are recorded — onshore time and time again. Everyone was too afraid to head down and change the gauge paper. But it had to be changed daily — if left for too long, the data would be lost.
“I was still young at the time and quick on my feet. The others tied a rope around me, and I bolted down the steps. I quickly changed the paper and ran back. I had hardly made it through the front door when another huge wave came crashing down on the roof,” he vividly recalls.
There isn’t really a dock here — just a small, relatively flat platform that isn’t safe for supply ships to dock against sideways, as they normally would. Instead, they have to carefully disembark from the bow or stern. Once ashore, they must climb over 300 steps — around 70 meters — to reach the station.
The two-story building was built in 2007. Only in recent years have electricity and an internet base station come through. Though the signal is sporadic, the improvement was enough for Jiang.
“When I first arrived, the station was just a small bungalow. The coal I used for heat and power, as well as food, water, and various other sundries, all had to be transported by ship regularly. So in extreme weather, when ships couldn’t dock, it’s a double disaster,” he says.
Fresh water is invaluable, underscores Jiang. In the past few decades, they’ve frequently needed to collect rainwater just to be safe. Every time the supply ship comes in, it brings more than 1,000 kg of supplies, which the station workers have to carry up bag by bag.
The worst are the summers, when there are long spells of stifling humidity and sometimes whole months of thick fog. Jiang says that they still can’t use air conditioning because of the unstable power supply, which depends on solar panels and diesel generators.
Then, there’s the boredom and loneliness.
According to Jiang, the island needs to remain manned 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. There are three observers at the station at any given time, who take turns doing four shifts — a day shift, a long night shift, a short night shift, and a hydrological shift.
Each day, 17 sets of data must be updated at designated times. The supply ship arrives once a month, bringing with it three new observers, who take over. This way, workers head back and forth between their homes and the rock all year long.
Loneliness means few people want to work here. “These work conditions make it difficult to recruit, and when we find people, they often can’t take it for too long,” says Jiang, adding that one recruit ran away after only a week.
“You don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it, but then who will take care of the station?” This is Jiang’s refrain when a team member leaves, or someone is in a bad mood, or the supply ship doesn’t arrive on time.
Sometimes it’s his turn to take time off, but he’s willing to hand the holiday over to his younger employees.
To make his time on the island more fulfilling, Jiang has started gathering soil and seedlings. Thanks to his efforts, there are now 20-30 fig trees on the island, some of which have even borne fruit, which in turn attract migratory birds. Jiang and his colleagues often rescue injured birds and have on multiple occasions talked birdcatchers off.
“Qianliyan has become my second home. I’ll continue to guard it for the rest of my life and play my part wholeheartedly in making China a great maritime power,” says Jiang.
Reported by Zhao Shi.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: Jiang Wenkai stands aboard a ship. Courtesy of the Ministry of Natural Resources)