Antarctic aerodrome creates a stir | Polarjournal
Wilkins Aerodrome currently is Australia’s only Antarctic runway where planes from the home country can land. But the ice runway is closed more and more frequently due to climate change and is also only available in summer. A new airstrip at Davis Station is expected to provide a remedy…. Picture: M. Ryan / Australian Antarctic Division

Australia has been an advocate for the southernmost continent since the beginning and is one of the big movers within the Antarctic Treaty Organization. The country sees itself as a protective power and guarantor for the preservation of the white continent and enjoys a high status in the Antarctic community. But his latest project of a year-round concrete runway aerodrome has put quite a dent in that reputation. Internationally, criticism and concern are hailing from all sides, especially with regard to the environment, sustainability and security policy.

The plan put forward by the Australian government and the Australian Antarctic Division is “unnecessary”, “too expensive”, “a bad idea” critics Shaun Brooks and Julia Jabour of the University of Tasmania are quoted as saying in the press. Brooks referred to the airfield as a “white elephant,” an object that will generate more costs than benefits. Their criticism is mainly directed at the environmental and ecological consequences. This is because Adélie penguin colonies and the birthplaces of Weddell seals are located in the approach corridor to the runway. The latter give birth to their pups in winter and the aerodrome, which is to be operated all year round, will have a massive impact on the animals through noise, exhaust fumes and particles. The scientists also complain about the CO2 emissions emitted by air traffic. Construction of the plant, which will be the largest project of its kind in East Antarctica in a long time, will disrupt and destroy fragile Antarctic ecosystems with blasting, noise and disturbance, critics said.

Australia’s second oldest but largest station Davis, saw a sensational medical evacuation last month. A sick station member had to be returned to Australia in a logistically complex operation. In the background: the Vestfold Hills. Image: Hannes Grobe AWI /Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

The critics’ environmental objections are likely to have taken a toll on Australia’s image as a forerunner for a sustainable Antarctic nation. But despite the criticism and accusations, Kim Ellis, the head of AAD, maintains that the aerodrome is for the good of Australian and international Antarctic research, which would gain unprecedented opportunities. At the same time, it should be said that the AAD had commissioned a full environmental impact assessment which currently is under review. According to the AAD, the project will be subject to an extensive, transparent and rigorous assessment to ensure that the standards for the protection of the Antarctic environment are fully guaranteed. After all Australia and the AAD have been active in enforcing these environmental standards with the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties. As the evaluation process is still underway, changes are likely in terms of project implementation.

The need, however, is clearly seen by AAD and the Australian government, especially in light of the recent events at Davis Station last December. Back then, a medical evacuation of a station member had to be carried out with the help of an elaborate, complex and also cost-intensive operation. In the end, several aircraft, a helicopter, icebreakers and several stations were involved. In addition, a runway had to be constructed at Davis Station. The entire operation took several days from planning to successful evacuation.

Several stations of other countries are located in the Australian sector, which occupies about 40 percent of the entire Antarctic mainland. These include the well-known stations of Vostok (RUS), Kunlun (CN) and Bharati (IND). These countries would also benefit from the aerodrome. Image: Michael Wenger

However, in addition to the science and logistics sectors cited as benefiting from the aerodrome by the AAD and the Australian government, foreign stations located in the same region as Davis Station would also benefit. This is because countries such as India, China and Russia, which operate permanently occupied stations in the region, are likely to have an interest in using the aerodrome as a logistics centre. They have all greatly expanded their Antarctic projects and programs in recent years, especially China. This is exactly where political scientists and security experts see the problem for the planned airfield. By doing so, for example, writes political scientist Grant Wyeth on the website The Diplomat , Australia would be “altering political conditions on the continent” by calling on China and Russia to undertake their own large-scale projects in this direction and even to stake territorial claims. Again, it could be that the project’s potential for conflict is perhaps considered too high. After all, the states in the region are working closely together and have been for many years. For example, China has provided strong logistical support to Australia’s evacuation operation in December. Whether the idea of cooperation, which unites the Antarctic treaty states, or tactical calculations were behind this, remains to be seen, and “in dubio pro reo” applies. In any case, it is not unlikely that Australia wants to cement not only the landing strip with its mega-project, but also its position in the white world of Antarctica.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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