If it goes according to the plans of Australia, the first year-round usable airport will soon be built in Antarctica. The multi-billion project envisages a 2.7-Kilometer runway at one of the most remote locations in the world. Planning is already underway-interested companies wishing to build in the Antarctic can register by the beginning of February.
Critics describe the Mega-project as ecologically and financially nonsensical. Australia wants to put a geopolitical Symbol on the South Pole. Other states could follow suit.
A Runway for 20 scientists
According to the Australian government, the planned" Davis Aerodrome " will facilitate access to the Davis Research Station five kilometres away. The Australian Station can accommodate up to a hundred people in summer, and about 20 in Winter.
The researchers in the Camp, for their part, do not want such a relief at all, they say, because the ecological burden is too great. In addition to the destruction caused by the construction, the noise of incoming and departing aircraft would cause regular disturbances for breeding colonies of giant petrels, seals and Eagle Penguins. And this in a world where tourism is already critical.
Shaun Brooks, an environmental scientist at the Institute of Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, told The Guardian that a project with these ecological impacts is unique in Antarctica. Brooks estimates that the airport project will increase the human footprint in Antarctica by 40 percent. The University of Tasmania is one of the world’s leading research institutions in Antarctica.
Large construction site for ten years
For example, 11,500 concrete blocks manufactured in Australia are required for construction, one of which weighs ten tons. In addition, there would be additional infrastructure, such as a storage area for explosives and aviation fuel, buildings for fire and rescue, on top of land reclamation from the sea for a shipyard and a four-kilometre access road. The plan is to level surrounding hills. The entire construction would take at least a decade.
For what, is questionable. Geoff Dimmock, retired logistics specialist and formerly responsible for postal distribution in Antarctica, says that in the 1980s a single postal flight caused panic in a colony of king penguins, in which 7000 animals died. Penguins warm their eggs on their feet until the chick hatches. During a Stampede, the eggs are exposed to harsh Antarctic conditions. Noise can therefore disturb the conservation of the species.
The former logistics Manager considers the Australian Mega-project not only ecologically questionable, but also economically over-stretched, and certifies it a “poor price-performance ratio”.
Bad example for the world community
The Australian government assures that the project will be carried out as environmentally friendly as possible. Both Brooks and Dimmock consider this to be difficult. In addition, Australia thus sets a bad example internationally.
Even without new buildings, the increasing human presence at the South Pole causes emissions, waste and noise. To reach the 80 research stations, half of which are staffed year-round, there are currently about 40 unpaved airstrips in Antarctica. The Wilkins Aerodrome at Camp Davis has only been in operation since 2008. The slope consists of glacial ice, which becomes unstable in midsummer. During this time, there are no flights.
Brooks and Dimmock say that such a company is unnecessary for a handful of researchers who have so far been able to do without a well-developed airport. It would hardly be about science. Although the flight break has been extended by several weeks due to climate change in recent years, people have been coping well for decades. Rather, it would be about “showing the flag”.
A Symbol of geopolitical interests
Behind the planned airport are less scientific than geopolitical interests. Australia is trying to establish a presence in the Antarctic, especially vis-à-vis China. The Asian great power operates four research stations in Antarctica, three of them on Australian territory. China wants to open a fifth base in 2022.
Where “territory” is a difficult term in this context. The Antarctic Treaty, prohibits territorial claims in Antarctica. Nevertheless, there are more or less sharply defined claims.
The international agreement, which came into force in 1961, stipulates that Antarctica may only be used for peaceful purposes, it allows scientific research, but not economic exploitation or military activities. International conventions protect the unique Antarctic Flora and Fauna. The 60-year-old treaty is valid indefinitely, but could be revised in the coming decades, several states are trying to Position themselves for it.
Little control over what is happening in Antarctica
Checks by other states ensure that the criteria are met. Practically these are difficult to carry out. Sending a Team to Antarctica is complex and expensive. According to “ABC”, in the eight years before 2019, Australian inspectors examined exactly one foreign Station operated by the USA. The Chinese station Kunlun, which has been around for more than 10 years, is difficult to access and has never been controlled.
Although China had expanded its activities in Antarctica during this period, they appeared more extensive than they were through clever media presentation, notes “Forbes”. China’s presence in Antarctica is low compared to other countries, Chile and the US have significantly more personnel on the ground and operate more bases. In addition, China regularly has logistical problems.
Australia has close economic ties with China. In December, the two states jointly rescued an emergency patient from Antarctica in an elaborate action. So it is above all about political symbolism. But not only – Australia and New Zealand suspect that China is conducting military research on navigation systems in Antarctica.
The construction of the Australian airport could lead to further, similar construction projects of other states and thus permanently worsen the environmental balance of the Antarctic continent.