Australia’s Antarctic Program Up in the Air After Runway Project Axed
The Australian government announced yesterday that it will not proceed with the construction of a 2,700-metre-long paved runway in Antarctica. The announcement by the environment minister, Sussan Ley, was framed as a significant decision to protect the Antarctic environment, but there are other factors at play.
The runway proposal was announced in 2018, and since then the project has been subject to technical feasibility studies, research on and assessments of environmental impacts, and cost–benefit analyses. The runway was to be located in the Vestfold Hills, 4.5 kilometres from Australia’s Davis Station. The area is an ice-free region of the Antarctic continent, close to the coast. The runway would have been 45 metres wide with a total length of 2.7 kilometres, constructed of large prefabricated concrete pavers. Extensive earthworks and ancillary engineering works would have been needed to provide a stable surface for the paving. It would have been possibly the biggest engineering project ever undertaken in Antarctica.
The Davis runway was to service intercontinental flights from Australia (principally Hobart) regularly throughout the year. The current blue-ice runway at Wilkins aerodrome, inland from Casey Station, operates only in summer. The new runway would have also supported year-round access for heavy-lift aircraft such as Australian Defence Force’s C-17 Globemasters and served as the hub for Antarctic intracontinental air services.
Ley’s media release clearly places the decision not to proceed in the realm of environmental protection, saying it ‘will protect Antarctica’s pristine wilderness’. Environmental concerns have been raised about the proposal since its inception, and the Australian Antarctic Division has been engaged in a comprehensive environmental evaluation under the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty System and Australia’s own environmental legislation.
The announcement also points to a ‘detailed … economic assessment’ of the proposal. It’s no surprise that cost was a major consideration in the decision to drop the project. The runway was to be built to the highest standards for use by passenger and freight jet aircraft and to the size required to meet the international standard. The combined cost of earthworks, construction materials, logistics, freight, personnel and associated infrastructure would have exceeded the construction costs of many large regional airports in Australia.
That’s also leaving aside the great difficulties of building a runway of this standard, on untried ground, in the extremely harsh Antarctic environment. Construction time would also have been a major consideration. The project would have taken many years to complete.
The project might also have restricted the logistics and accommodation infrastructure available to researchers in the Australian Antarctic program as resources became tied up with the personnel and freight requirements for construction. These opportunity costs could have been considerable.
Ley’s announcement says, ‘The detailed environmental and economic assessment will help inform future investment in new scientific, environmental and strategic capabilities that better serve Australia’s national interest and protect the environmental values that underpin the Antarctic Treaty System.’
In 2014, I recommended that Australia investigate ‘the viability of flying ski-equipped aircraft directly from Australia to Antarctica or other direct flight options; and the options of regular heavy lift aircraft directly from Hobart Airport to Wilkins Aerodrome or elsewhere in Antarctica’. While there won’t be a large paved runway at Davis Station, there are still many other options to deliver enhanced scientific, environmental and strategic outcomes for Australia’s Antarctic interests.
These options include an alternative ice runway or ski-way, ship-based long-range heavy-lift helicopter operations, enhanced shipping logistics to supplement Australia’s investment in the world-class new icebreaker Nuyina, and investment in new scientific capabilities.
To underline Australia’s Antarctic interests, enhanced commitments to science and international collaboration, environmental stewardship, and leadership in Antarctic affairs should be foremost in the assessment of Australia’s future Antarctic investments.
In response to a recent review of its science capabilities, the Australian Antarctic Division has stated: ‘Science is the central driver of all its activities.’ It has adopted as its unifying narrative that its purpose is ‘Building comprehensive knowledge of East Antarctica and its ecosystems to inform our Antarctic stewardship and enhance our understanding of climate change.’
Priorities should be reinvesting in the Australian Antarctic Division’s capabilities to undertake national priority science in Antarctica, enhancing Australia’s domestic and international Antarctic science investments and collaborations, and developing and deploying new technologies in science and science logistics.
It’s not only science and the environment, though. Australia can, and should, use this decision to underline its environmental leadership in Antarctic affairs, and to use its foreshadowed enhanced Antarctic investments to strengthen international leadership in Antarctic science, logistics and international collaboration.
The ‘options for expanding our wider Antarctic Program capability’ need to include not just the obvious and much needed investments in personnel, logistics and capabilities, but also investments in strategic thinking and diplomacy.