Australia originally planned to build what was described in the Guardian as Antarctica’s biggest infrastructure project; an airport and runway that would increase the human footprint in what has been described as the world’s greatest wilderness by an estimated 40%. The plan was widely criticised due to environmental reasons.
The scheme would have blasted pigeon breeding grounds, disturbed penguin colonies and encased the wilderness in more than 115,000 tonnes of concrete. However, the Australian government were wanting to pursue this anyway because they wanted to provide year-round access to the Davis Research Station, Australia’s most southerly base in Antarctica.
According to the aviation website Simple Flying, at the moment the research station can only really be accessed in the summer months via the Wilkins ice runway. Specialist cold climate airline SkyTraders presently provides the air link between Australia’s southernmost major airport Hobart and Antarctica via its Airbus A319-100.
The airbus flies to the Wilkins airstrip, roughly a four-hour flight. However, outside the summer months, the Davis Research base is largely cut off from the outside world. It was also felt that a runway near the research base would help counter growing Chinese and Russian influence and claims in the region. So far Australia has the biggest claim on the continent. So why has the Australian Government U Turned on this decision?
It appears that environmental reasons continued to plague Australia and its decision to initially give the go-ahead. According to the Guardian, It was claimed by environmental scientists that the multi-billion dollar plan was a waste of money and could lead to a destructive construction race by territorial rivals.
In this way, it may have been felt that there would be a construction war between Russia and China against Australia and the West. Environmentalists such as Shaun Brooks, an environmental scientist at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, dismissed the act of building the runway as flag-waving and firming up Australia’s presence in the region.
The environmental cost of the construction of the runway was very significant. According to the Guardian, there would be more pollution, more noise and more carbon emissions. As well as destruction to wildlife during construction, once completed the operation of the airport would bring regular disruption to breeding colonies of southern giant petrels (pigeons), seals and Adelie penguins. Multiple studies have shown that aircraft have a negative impact on Antarctic wildlife.
In the 1980s a single mail drop by a low flying airplane led to a stampede at the king penguin colony which lead to 7000 of them dying. Adelie penguins, which will have colonies near the airport, must keep stationary on their eggs in order for the chicks to harch successfully. If mothers are panicked by aircraft eggs can be left exposed to freezing winds and predators.
The economic cost of the runway was also very high. Australia’s new airstrip would be 2.7km long and 40m wide. Unlike other structures in Antarctica, it would be a permanent structure built on top of the landscape with cement and 11,500 concrete blocks each weighing more than 10 tonnes. Shipping the materials there would take more than a decade and about 100 ice breaker voyages.
The government said that the land would be flattened by blasting crushing and filling with a total of 3 million cubic meters of earthworks. The construction would require a storage area for explosives, land reclamation from the seafloor a new wharf, new tanks for aviation fuel and a 4 km access road. All this would not only cost money, but it would also be destructive to the environment as well.
Finally, Susan Ley, the Australian Liberal Party’s Environment minister announced that they would not be proceeding with the construction of the runway at the Davis Research station. According to the Guardian, there was some government division over this decision. However one can see that the economic and environmental cost of this venture was very high and therefore the prevailing wisdom was to cancel the construction.