10.02.2021 Author: Valery Kulikov

Do Penguins Really Need an Australian Concrete Airstrip?


The Australian government has announced plans to build the region’s largest infrastructure project, a new airport with a concrete airstrip in Antarctica near Davis Station (east of the continent), one of three Australian research stations in Antarctica. Davis Station has been in existence since 1957 and is served by 19 people, in addition to more than 100 people living and working in the vicinity of the future airport. A hard airstrip, along with other infrastructure, will occupy about two square kilometers of territory, displacing the usual habitat of penguins and harbor seals.

Australia owns about 42.4% of the Antarctic territory. The rest of the ice continent belongs to Great Britain, France, Argentina, Chile, Norway, and New Zealand. Australia has never had a year-round runway on its part of the icy continent.

It is assumed that the new airstrip will be 2.7 kilometers long and 40 meters wide, which will allow it to take almost any modern passenger liner, and will work all year round. Currently, due to climatic conditions it is possible to get to the Australian Davis station only in summer (October to March): from the city of Hobart, located on the Australian island of Tasmania, to the new strip is about 5 thousand miles, the flight takes about 6 hours.

Australian authorities do not rule out that after the construction of an asphalt runway we can talk about the birth of mass tourism to the most inaccessible continent of the planet. Currently, civil passenger airliners do not fly over Antarctica, as the White Continent does not have the necessary amount of infrastructure according to international standards – spare airfields, where flights can be redirected in case of changes, for example, in weather conditions or due to other emergencies.

However, in Soviet times, Aeroflot had a special department responsible for polar aviation. In 1962 this department used the “regular” IL-18 to fly to the sixth continent and these planes flew to Antarctica until the early 1990s. The airplane was flying along the route Moscow – Tashkent – Delhi – Jakarta – Sydney – Christchurch (New Zealand) – American Antarctic station McMurdo – Mirny station, travel time – about a month and a half. Now for flights to Antarctica various countries mainly use semi-cargo-semi-passenger airliners Lockheed Hercules L-382 G and Il-76-TD.

The construction of a new concrete airstrip near Australia’s Davis Station will require about 115,000 tons of concrete, which will need to be delivered to Antarctica by at least 100 icebreaker voyages over 10 years. Most of the future asphalt runway in Antarctica will be built in Australia: the 11,500 elements, each weighing 10 tons, will be delivered to the site by ship. The project is now being evaluated for sustainability and cost, and if approved, construction will not begin until 2023 and could be completed by 2040.

In explaining the need for this construction, Australian authorities point out that without an airport, polar scientists will not be able to quickly arrive at the station. But it is perfectly clear that this infrastructure project is part of Canberra’s efforts to counter China’s influence in the region.

Active debates have already begun to break out in the international community regarding the feasibility of such a project.  In particular, on the pages of the British The Guardian experts argue that the construction of an airport and such a runway in Antarctica has no practical scientific benefit and is just a waste of budget funds. Especially since problems can arise even at the stage of shipping construction materials and concrete blocks, not to mention the fact that explosive substances, in particular fuel for aircraft, will be stored at the construction site.

Experts also debunk the Australian authorities’ claim that the airport will help explore the region. In particular, environmentalists point to its harm to the environment of this very region. They believe that animals, particularly seals and penguins living near the station, could be greatly affected by this construction and once such a large airport is operational, as the sounds of aircraft could scare away female penguins hatching their eggs and make them easy prey for predators.

One of the main lobbyists for the construction of such an airport is the Antarctic Survey of Australia and its chairman Kim Ellis. “The proposed aerodrome will deliver a significant capability boost to the Australian Antarctic Program and revolutionise scientific research on the continent,” Ellis says. Planes would travel 4,838 kilometers from Hobart to the new airfield in just six hours, whereas at present shipments to Australian stations are made twice a year by icebreaker. In addition, the Australian Antarctic Survey states that the lack of a year-round airport now allegedly threatens to effectively halt flights to Antarctica, as the current ice landing strip at the existing Wilkins Airfield suffers from global warming and is becoming more inaccessible with each passing year.

Recall that the Wilkins Runway is a single runway operated by Australia, located on the upper glacier of the Budd Coast, 40 km from the coast and 65 km from the Australian base Casey Station, is a strip cut out in the glacial ice. Its construction dates back to 2004 and cost $46 million. To meet Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) requirements, the Wilkins runway is aligned to a standard with lasers and requires a dedicated team of eight people to maintain the proper level and proper traction with landing vehicles before each landing. As for the problems of melting of the ice surface of this strip, eco-activists argue that the solution here may not be that difficult – they could simply replace planes with wheeled landing gear with planes with ski landing gear. These were already used by the US military during the evacuation of one of the polar explorers in 2008.

In the heated controversy surrounding Australia’s construction of this new concrete airstrip, the alarms of other nations have become increasingly clear of late. It is noted that this construction is largely due to the desire of Canberra to enter into active competition in the development and subsequent transportation of natural wealth of the “White Continent”, especially with South Korea and China, also recently trying to develop its infrastructure in Antarctica.

It is noteworthy that Australia’s competition for the development of its own infrastructure in Antarctica takes place against the background of the international ban on exploration and mining in this region: in 1959 the corresponding Antarctic Treaty was signed, which, in particular, provides for the demilitarization of the “White Continent.” However, Canberra clearly expects this agreement to expire as early as 2048, and there is very little doubt that the world’s major powers will extend it in the face of an escalating struggle for resources. After all, as we know, when it comes to resources, especially oil, international law magically ceases to function and is inevitably replaced by the “law of force.” And so it is by 2048 that Canberra intends to complete construction of the concrete airstrip discussed today and provide for its commissioning.

And what answer can the silent penguins, the natural natives of the White Continent, give to all this? Will the efforts of Australia and other countries that hunt the natural resources of this region bring them the same fate as that of the Indians in America?

Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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