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All-weather runway in Antarctica a ‘strategic imperative’

By Jeffrey McGee, Marcus Haward and Anthony Bergin

There is growing geopolitical interest in Antarctica. And now Australia has an opportunity to make a long-term investment that would bolster our leadership in Antarctica, where we claim 42 per cent of the frozen continent.

The federal government next year will decide on whether to commit funding for a proposed year-round paved aerodrome near the Australian Davis research station in East Antarctica. It would be the only paved runway in Antarctica. Our Antarctic program currently relies upon summer-only access to the Wilkins blue-ice aerodrome near Casey Station.

The proposal is for a 2.7km runway as well as aircraft hangars, a small terminal facility, storage building, fuel storage and other support services. The proposed aerodrome and associated infrastructure would be located about 4.5km from Davis Station and occupy less than 0.5 per cent of the Vestfold Hills. The Vestfolds is an unusually large ice-free area of more than 400sq km.

An all-weather, year-round, paved runway at Davis would have huge positive impacts on Antarctic science and logistics in East Antarctica, where there are no equivalent facilities. Flight time from Hobart to Davis is six to seven hours. There would be three intercontinental flights each month in summer, and up to monthly flights over winter.

It would act as both a destination for intercontinental science and logistics flights from Australia and a hub for distributing personnel and equipment, via intracontinental flights to Australian and various other national research bases in East Antarctica. Through those bases there would be links to the whole continent using the networks of other programs.

The development of the Davis aerodrome will overcome the constraints Australia and other Antarctic programs face with climate change impacts on polar runways that use compressed snow or glacial “blue ice”. The new runway will be a game changer in Australia’s access to East Antarctica. Once operational, it would release our new icebreaker, RSV Nuyina, to commit more days for year-round marine research.

Davis Station in east Antarctica is managed by the Australian Antarctic Division. There are plans to build a year-round paved aerodrome near the station. Picture: AAD

Even though it won’t be operational for more than a decade, the aerodrome project should be a high priority for Australia: we should send the strongest message that this country is determined to maintain a credible long-term leadership role in Antarctica in a responsible way.

It’s expected that the overall cost will be substantial, given the 15-year construction period. But with the distances involved and the logistical challenges, there is no scope to do it cheaply or quickly — that is the problem for any major Antarctic infrastructure, and why long-term commitment is necessary.

The proposed site will allow for construction of a paved concrete runway on rock, at low elevation, close to the sea, in a place with a benign climate, and with a runway alignment naturally suited to the prevailing winds: all factors that make it uniquely suitable in Antarctica for all-season air access.

Unlike other places, the site would allow a full-size runway to accommodate large jet aircraft. Runways are not unusual in Antarctica. But reliable year-round runways are. A paved concrete runway at Davis will provide significant advantages over gravel runways in terms of better reliability, less maintenance, increased aircraft payloads and a longer operational lifespan. As the funding decision draws nearer, there’s already been some criticism of the Davis aerodrome proposal: issues related to environmental impacts, such as extra personnel at Davis to construct the runway over a 15-year period and the potential for negative impacts upon local petrel, penguin and seal populations. It’s even been argued that the proposed aerodrome could trigger a geopolitical competition for other large infrastructure projects in Antarctica, new territorial claims or militarisation of the continent.

However, we believe that with care, it should be possible to design, construct and operate a facility that satisfies both operational requirements and our Antarctic environmental obligations. There are strong national interest grounds to proceed. The proposed aerodrome would further demonstrate our maturity and influence in Antarctic science and diplomacy. From a broader geopolitical perspective, quality Antarctic science and diplomatic strength in the Antarctic treaty system are significant in advancing Australia’s national interests.

Facilities at Davis Station in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Picture: Barry Becker

The aerodrome would see Australia become the logistics country of choice for East Antarctica, and a primary driver of scientific and logistic co-operation in the area immediately to Australia’s south. It would provide a strong vantage point for improved inspection processes under the Antarctic Treaty, or for aerial surveillance over the adjacent waters, if that becomes necessary for fisheries patrols. If we choose not to proceed, other key polar powers would view us as reluctant to lead in strengthening Antarctic science and logistics.

The year-round aviation access that the Davis aerodrome offers will allow Australia to better meet its search-and-rescue obligations in East Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, as required by the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. We currently have very limited capability to provide search and rescue in the zone for which we have accepted responsibility.

If Australia doesn’t proceed, another country may. Although the site is adjacent to Australia’s Davis Station, there’s nothing to stop any other party to the Antarctic Treaty using the site to develop its own station or construct its own runway.

We know other states are interested in developing air access to East Antarctica. In 2018, China indicated it has plans to build a permanent 1.5km ice runway in the nearby Larsemann Hills area, near its Zhongshan Research Station. If Australia decides not to proceed there would be no legal barrier to China, or any other Antarctic country, putting forward a new aerodrome proposal for the Vestfold Hills and doing it on rock.

In that situation, access to the aerodrome facilities would be controlled by another country and constructed to the environmental and operational standards of that state. Australia would be put in the position of having to negotiate, and possibly pay for, access to a facility adjacent to our own station.

If the Vestfold Hills is to be used for year-round air access, we’d argue that it’s preferable for Australia to construct it to meet strict Australian environmental standards. We’d be able to prevent inappropriate uses by other potential operators, such as using the aerodrome to support permanent tourist facilities in the region.

Australia has well-established legislative environmental impact processes. We have a track record of environmental leadership in Antarctica to protect: we were a key driver in the formation of the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection that provides a -comprehensive environmental protection regime for the Antarctic region.

We’ve already got in place specific and longstanding domestic legislation: the Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protection) Act and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which provide detailed rules for environmental assessment of all significant Australian activities in Antarctica.

The environmental assessment produced by the federal government will likely be more rigorous than that produced by any other party to the Antarctic Treaty.

Having Australia as the proponent for an aerodrome therefore has significant advantages in the level and quality of environmental assessment that can be expected and compliance with any operating conditions imposed. The Davis aerodrome will also boost the position of Hobart as a centre of Antarctic logistics and science and make it the pre-eminent gateway city to East Antarctica. This will build and solidify Australia’s diplomatic and scientific influence in the region.

Given the expenditure involved, the lengthy timeline to completion in the late 2030s, and meeting environmental concerns, the decision to proceed with the Davis aerodrome will be a difficult one. But we have the necessary engineering capacity, the marine logistics to support its construction and the aircraft capable of making best use of it. Importantly, Australia now has an even greater strategic imperative to act.

There’s nothing unusual about making an investment decision subject to environmental approval. It is common in large infrastructure projects. In recent years, the Australian government made a multi-billion-dollar investment commitment to Snowy Hydro 2.0 subject to final environmental consideration.

The Davis aerodrome will future-proof our Antarctic science program for decades: there’s a direct correlation between an expanded logistics network and a significant expansion of science programs in Antarctica. Science is the currency of influence in Antarctica: investing in Antarctic logistics is the most effective way to advance our long-term Antarctic interests.

As international interest in Antarctica increases, this is no time for complacency. The commissioning of a new polar ship is only half of the story of modernising our Antarctic science and logistics capacity. The development of an all-weather, year-round paved runway at Davis will be a game changer for the Australian Antarctic program and increase our strategic weight in the cold continent.

This is an edited extract from Gamechanger: Australian leadership for all-season air access to Antarctica by Jeffrey McGee, Marcus Haward and Anthony Bergin, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published by: on 13 May 2021