Australia’s government is planning to build an airport and runway in Antarctica, as part of a multimillion dollar scheme it says will ensure year-round access for environmental scientists to study the continent’s wildlife and marine ecosystem.
There’s just one problem, though — many of the environmental scientists in question say they do not want the infrastructure. Instead, some deem the scheme a waste of time, saying it could potentially be destructive to the biodiversity of the continent.
“Although it is being done in the name of science, very few scientists are enthusiastic,” Shaun Brooks, an environmental scientist at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies of the University at Tasmania, told
. “This is more about flag-waving. It is about firming up Australia’s presence and our claim.”
Australia currently maintains three year-round research stations — at Mawson, Casey, Davis — and also has one on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island. Flights to the continent often depend on under-developed gravel or ice runways during warmer periods of the year, such as the blue-ice runway at the Wilkins Aerodrome. These runways are, however, becoming inoperable as global warming melts local surfaces.
The new proposed airstrip would be 2.7 kilometres long and 40 metres wide, according to the government, and, unlike current runways, would be constructed out of cement and 11,500 concrete blocks, each weighing more than 10 tonnes.
The land would be flattened by blasting and crushing, before the runway was filled out with soil and rock. The plan, which could take decades to construct, would also require a new storage area for explosives; land reclamation from the sea for a new wharf where transport ships could dock; tanks for aviation fuel; and a four-kilometre access road.
Brooks said the infrastructure would increase the human footprint on the continent by an estimated 40 per cent, which could not only devastate wildlife habitat, but also disrupt breeding colonies of seals and penguins.
“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?” he told the Guardian.
Geoff Dimmock, a former organizer of mail drops and supply missions in the region, also criticized the plan, adding that there was no way to avoid noise disruption and contamination as part of the project. “I don’t want the hills flattened,” he told the Guardian. “Environmentally, I think this is a real bad precedent to set. And it’s poor value for money.”
Peter Whish-Wilson, an Australian Green Party senator, asked parliament how such a project could align with the country’s goal to promote “leadership and environmental stewardship” in the region.
The government, though, insists the environmental impact will be scrutinized carefully, and will be submitted to other Antarctic Treaty nations and released for public consultation.
“The construction of the aerodome will have some unavoidable impacts,” a spokesperson told the Guardian,” and we are committed to understanding the environmental impacts and implementing mitigation measures to the highest standards possible.”
Activists say there are other alternatives, such as using aircraft that use skis instead of wheels for take-off and landing.
Plans to built a permanent airport at the Davis research station had been proposed decades ago, but were balked at by past governments due to the cost involved. Interest in the idea was revived in recent years and has since been pushed by Environment Minister Sussan Levy, and head of the Australian Antarctic Division Kim Ellis, who is also the chief executive of Sydney Airport.
The government is conscious that China and Russia are upgrading their bases in the region and want to up their presence on the continent, the Guardian reported.
“The scale of this is so out of step with our requirements. I think putting up this big flag will encourage others to do something similar,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t align with Australia’s claim to be an environmental leader. Antarctica is special. Everywhere else in the world, you measure wilderness by what’s left. In Antarctica, it’s still the other way round.”
Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques