Antarctica is a natural paradise and habitat of fascinating creatures. Australia is planning an airport there. Experts warn of irreparable damage.

Antarctica is considered one of the last largely untouched natural areas on earth. This is due not only to the continent’s remote location, but also to its inhospitable climate.

Temperatures of minus 98 degrees were once measured in valleys of the East Antarctic Plateau. In recent decades, gigatons of ice have melted in Antarctica. In this unique region with its rare animal species, Australia plans to build an airport by 2040. A 2.7-kilometer paved runway will enable even large aircraft to fly to the South Pole in the future. Environmentalists are appalled.

The government in Canberra wants to carry out the project in the part of Antarctica it claims in the east, very close to the Australian research station Davis. Scaffolding hire companies benefit particularly from such major contracts. The asphalt runway would make year-round air connections between Hobart, the capital of the state of Tasmania, and Antarctica possible, according to the wishes of the government agency Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).

Scientists warn against Antarctic airport

The area has little ice, but many natural wonders. “The Davis Station region is probably the most significant ice-free coastal area in Antarctica,” University of Tasmania (UTAS) researchers point out. “It offers unique lakes, fjords, fossil sites and wildlife.”

Julia Jabour and Shaun Brooks of the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) issued a stark warning last year about the potential impacts of the project. For example, they said, the area surrounding the proposed airstrip is important for Adélie penguins, Weddell seals and giant petrels. Not only would parts of the animals’ habitat be destroyed, they would also suffer massively from noise and dust during construction and especially after commissioning, say animal rights activists.

According to the report, there are eight Adélie penguin breeding grounds in the immediate vicinity of the planned construction site alone. In the future, the flightless seabirds could be panicked by planes taking off and landing and leave their eggs behind, which would then be exposed to icy winds. “Considering that tourism guidelines state that you can’t even block a penguin’s path, you can expect this project to have a huge impact on the animals,” said Antarctic expert Alistair Allan of the conservation organization Bob Brown Foundation. “Irreparable damage can also be expected in adjacent lakes,” Jabour and Brooks wrote in their paper. Native lichens, fungi and algae could be destroyed. Brooks estimates that the project would increase the ecological footprint of all nations conducting studies in Antarctica by 40 percent.

Project likely to cost billions of dollars

Currently, the expensive project is in the environmental review phase. Observers expect it to cost several billion Australian dollars. Whether it will ultimately be approved is still in question. But the Antarctic Division AAD sees “a number of significant scientific benefits” if there is future year-round access to the inhospitable region. “This would allow scientists to focus on answering critical questions of global importance,” an AAD spokesman told Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

He mentioned benefits in data collection and biological studies, among other things, as well as the ability to “collect ecological data at a higher resolution across seasons.” Environmental concerns are understood, he said. Thorough studies and testing would be conducted to minimize impacts.

Critics, however, believe that the government is pursuing not only scientific but primarily geopolitical goals. Foreign Minister Marise Payne, for example, said in a December press release that the project would “strengthen Australia’s presence in Antarctica.” The AAD had also said in an earlier report that the airfield would “equally increase our presence and influence.”

Critics doubt benefit of airport

Geoff Dannock, who served as logistics manager for AAD for more than a decade, explains the planners’ motivations from his perspective: “They’re concerned about the growing influence and interest of China and Russia in Antarctica – and they think they can counter that by building this concrete piece.” Since the project was announced in 2018, Dannock has warned the government not only about the environmental consequences, but also about “massive logistical problems.” He can’t “see any benefits at all in the project,” he explains.

The Bob Brown Foundation had already launched a petition against the project in November, which some 1,200 people have signed so far. He had spoken to many stakeholders about the plans, including former AAD employees and scientists, to get a sense of how the project would be received, says Antarctic expert Allan. “The vast majority felt it was not a good project and should not be pursued.”

It is estimated that about 250 people would be needed to build the runway. “Housing that many people to complete the airfield by 2040 would also have environmental consequences,” Dannock warned. “This is a high-tech runway, after all, not just a piece of concrete.” Ultimately, however, the decision rests solely with the government, he said.

“My biggest fear is that no government will manage to secure funding until 2040,” Dannock said. “And then if a new government is elected, it could cancel the funding after the earth has already been removed. All that would be left would be rubble – so a lot of damage without any benefit.”