Scientists push back against Australia’s multibillion-dollar Antarctic airport

An Icy Response

Scientists push back against Australia’s multibillion-dollar Antarctic airport

Australia’s historic Davis Research Station in Antarctica. (Graham Denyer/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Australian government is facing opposition to a planned infrastructure megaproject in Antarctica from the community that the project would most greatly benefit: Antarctic scientists.

The ambitious scheme would involve constructing a new airport and paved runway near Davis Station, a research hub situated along an ice-free stretch of the Ingrid Christensen Coast in East Antarctica. Established in 1957 and added to Australia’s national heritage register in 1999, Davis Station is the second oldest and most southerly of the three permanent outposts on the Antarctic continent operated by the Hobart, Tasmania-headquartered Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). The planned facility would entail constructing the first-ever concrete runway on a continent where the 20-some existing airports—all operated by member nations of the Antarctic Treaty System and most serving research stations—have runways composed of ice, blue ice, snow or, more rarely, gravel.

While the Australian government first announced the so-called Davis Aerodrome Project back in 2018, opposition to the airport from some within the scientific community has picked up steam in recent months. Detractors claim that the project wouldn’t just be disruptive to the untouched wilderness surrounding Davis Station and the wildlife (notably of the waddling, black and white variety) that inhabits it but that it would be also wildly redundant.

“I can’t help thinking this will become a white elephant. How can you justify a multi-billion-dollar runway for a base with only 19 people during the winter and which has been maintained without problems since 1957?” Shaun Brooks, an environmental scientist at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies of the University at Tasmania, recently told the Guardian.

“It’s unprecedented in the Antarctic in terms of the scale of investment and the impact on the environment,” added Brooks, who also wrote, along with University of Tasmania adjunct senior lecturer Julia Jabour, about the AAD’s “bad idea” in an opinion piece published by The Conversation this past July. “Although it is being done in the name of science, very few scientists are enthusiastic. This is more about flag-waving.”

At first thought, a modest airstrip that will help to, in the words of the AAD, “enhance Australia’s leadership and long-term interests in the region” through improved aviation access, doesn’t seem to have the potential for widespread ecological disruption. However, the sheer scale of the Davis Aerodrome Project, which would increase the existing infrastructure (or “disturbance footprint” ) on Antarctica by a staggering 40 percent, is, as mentioned by Brooks, simply unprecedented.

Much of the concern comes from the composition of the runway itself, which would be built directly atop the landscape with over 11,500 precast concrete pavers weighing 10 metric tons each. Transporting these materials to the site via cargo ship and placing them would take up to a decade and be noisy, polluting, and highly disruptive to wildlife including Weddell seals and Adélie penguins, which as pointed out by the Guardian, breed in the immediate area of the planned airport and are easily panicked by aviation activity.

Brooks and Jabour have also voiced worry about dust emissions caused by the extensive earthwork required to build the runway. As they’ve noted, the impact of dust emissions on plants and animals living on the windiest continent on Earth is “poorly understood.”

As detailed by the AAD, the mild climate and relatively predictable weather patterns of the biodiversity-rich Vestfold Hills area make it ideal for year-round aviation activities. In addition to the paved 8,800-foot-long runway, which would be large enough to handle aircraft such as a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, additional infrastructure would also be built out including a taxiway, ramp, air traffic control tower, and support buildings. A road directly linking the station with the aerodrome would also be established along with a new wharf and various structures to support the construction of the facility.

While he did acknowledge the likelihood for “some unavoidable environmental impacts” prior to the project opening for public comment early last year, AAD Director Kim Ellis has remained firm in his belief that the pros will ultimately outweigh the cons.

“The proposed aerodrome will deliver a significant capability boost to the Australian Antarctic Program and revolutionise scientific research on the continent,” said Ellis in a statement. “An aviation capability that regularly and efficiently delivers scientists and instruments to Antarctica would offer unprecedented opportunities. We will be able to better monitor and understand the Antarctic environment, improve accuracy of forecast models, sea level rise predictions and climate change impacts.”

“For several years now scientists and technical experts have been on the ground in Antarctica building our understanding of the site and the potential impacts of construction and operation,” he added.

The AAD currently operates one airport, the single runway Wilkins Aerodrome near Casey Station on the continent’s Budd Coast. Carved into blue glacial ice, the 12-year-old facility has become increasingly unviable since opening due to global warming; the already small seasonal window that flights to and from Hobart can safely arrive and depart from the frozen airstrip has become more limited as it melts away.

There’s also, as alluded to by Brooks and Jabour, the fact that other nations including Russia and China are both expanding their respective presences on the continent, a factor that has prompted Australia to up its Antarctic game, so to speak, and assert its influence-based muscle.

Back by Australian Environmental Minister Sussan Ley, the Davis Aerodrome Project is currently undergoing environmental review. If ultimately approved, site preparation and construction work could kick off in 2023 and last until 2040 at the earliest.