Australia’s government had hoped that a paved runway near its Davis station would allow year-round access for aircraft. The idea dates back to 2018, but was not approved by the federal government on November 25, 2021 after a detailed environmental and economic review. Australian news portal ABC News now reports that newly published documents show why Australian taxpayers ended up spending 19 million AUS dollars (around €11.5 million) on a planned airstrip in Antarctica that will never be built.
Some government representatives were shocked by the amount of money spent on planning and consulting. According to ABC News, Senator Catryna Bilyk asked how much money was spent on consultants. The answer was that the amount of 20,622,637 AUS dollars was invested in the period 2020-2021. The senator then asked whether this was a typo or whether it was correct?
Recently published documents show that the figures were correct. The Senate inquiry into the funding of the Australian Antarctic Division found that the division had spent over AUS$19 million on 13 different consultancies to produce reports for the proposed airstrip.
The project had already been criticized even before it was cancelled. The location and the impact on the sensitive Antarctic land ecosystem were particularly criticized. But environmental associations and conservationists were not the only critics. A strong headwind was also blowing from the opposition in parliament. And these voices were raised again after the hearings, saying that the money would have been better invested in scientific projects that had recently been put on hold by the AAD.
However, the story is not over yet, as Australian media state. The Senate Committee will present its final report in March 2024. Thus, there may still be surprises to come.
Australia operates three stations in Antarctica, but only one ice runway with the Wilkins Aerodrome. The airfield is located 70 kilometers southwest of the Australian research station Casey and offers intercontinental flights only at the beginning and end of the southern summer. The airfield usually cannot be used in winter due to a lack of technical facilities. Unlike the planned and shredded runway at Davis Station, Casey runway consists of ice and snow. The runway itself is named after the aviation pioneer and explorer Sir George Hubert Wilkins, who died in 1958.
The runway, also known as Wilkins Runway, is 3,200 meters long and 45 meters wide and is used for intercontinental flights with an Airbus A319 and transport aircraft from Hobart International Airport, some 3,400 kilometers away.
The number of flights from Hobart to Wilkins Runway, originally planned at one-week intervals of up to 20 per year, could not yet be achieved. In addition to weather-related disruptions, an unexpected melting of the surface due to excessively mild temperatures made the airfield temporarily unusable from 2011 onwards. This effect of climate change calls into question the long-term usability of ice runways such as Wilkins Runway.
Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal
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