Global Warming Melting Vital Antarctic Airstrip
October 25, 2012

Global Warming Melting Vital Antarctic Airstrip

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The future of Australia´s once highly touted Wilkins airstrip, built to link the country with its research stations in Antarctica, is in jeopardy as warmer temperatures have caused the $46-million runway carved from glacial ice to soften and melt.

The Australian government announced on Wednesday that it was looking at both temporary and permanent alternatives for supplying its research stations on the frozen continent.

"There (are) signs there's a long-term warming trend, global warming," Tony Fleming, the Australian Antarctic Division´s director, told Australia´s ABC Radio. "That will make it more difficult to operate this runway in the future once it gets to above minus five degrees in the ice, then there are safety parameters which mean we can't [land] aircraft on that."

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) had planned on landing 20 flights each summer on the runway, but only 16 total flights have landed on the runway since 2009.

The Wilkins runway is an important link for the three permanent stations Australia has established on Antarctica: Casey, Davis and Mawson stations. These stations can also be supplied by an American airstrip or by cargo ships that take 1 to 2 weeks to make the trek from Tasmania.

Several flights are still scheduled to land at the Wilkins runway through January, however weather concerns may prevent any flights from landing beyond that time. Australian flights occasionally land at the American´s McMurdo Station and future flight by the AAD could be directed there.

"We are looking at options constantly about our air link arrangements," Fleming said.

Many observers expect the government to look at a site near the Vestfold Hills by Davis station for the construction of a year-round gravel runway. A 1999 study found this region was one of the few ice-free areas on Antarctica large enough to hold a traditional runway. The study added that the site could be large enough to comfortably land large passenger jets. The site was ruled out at the time because of cost constraints.

It should be noted that the Wilkins runway was a much ballyhooed project, especially after being christened back in 2008. Australian politicians, including the former Midnight Oil signer and then Environmental Minister Peter Garrett, were climbing over each other to take credit for the multimillion dollar project. In a greatly publicized trip which rankled some politicians, Garrett and a few other Australian officials were among the first passengers to land on the icy runway.

"It is disappointing that Labor is trying to bask in the reflected glory of this project, which was entirely the initiative of the former Liberal Government," Senator Eric Abetz told Australian newspaper the Herald Sun in 2008.

Abetz also referred to Garrett as “mean spirited” for not inviting lawmakers who had worked on airstrip project on the maiden Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) flight.

Tony Press, who was AAD director at the time and a passenger on that first flight, said at the time that he was glad to see the result of years of lobbying and hard work. "This is just fabulous, I've worked on this for nine years, it's the culmination of a lot of people's efforts."