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Australia Wants to Build a Huge Concrete Runway in Antarctica. Here’s Why That’s a Bad Idea

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Australia Wants to Build a Huge Concrete Runway in Antarctica. Here’s Why That’s a Bad Idea
The Penguin suspicious on the shore looking at the camera, on January 3 in King George Island, Antarctica. Alessandro Dahan / Getty Images

By Shaun Brooks and Julia Jabour

Australia wants to build a 2.7-kilometre concrete runway in Antarctica, the world's biggest natural reserve. The plan, if approved, would have the largest footprint of any project in the continent's history.

The runway is part of an aerodrome to be constructed near Davis Station, one of Australia's three permanent bases in Antarctica. It would be the first concrete runway on the continent.


The plan is subject to federal environmental approval. It coincides with new research published this week showing Antarctica's wild places need better protection. Human activity across Antarctica has been extensive in the past 200 years – particularly in the coastal, ice-free areas where most biodiversity is found.

The area around Davis Station is possibly Antarctica's most significant coastal, ice-free area. It features unique lakes, fjords, fossil sites and wildlife.

Australia has successfully operated Davis Station since 1957 with existing transport arrangements. While the development may win Australia some strategic influence in Antarctica, it's at odds with our strong history of environmental leadership in the region.

Year-Round Access

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), a federal government agency, argues the runway would allow year-round aviation access between Hobart and Antarctica.

Presently, the only Australian flights to Antarctica take place at the beginning and end of summer. Aircraft land at an aerodrome near the Casey research station, with interconnecting flights to other stations and sites on the continent. The stations are inaccessible by both air and ship in winter.

The AAD says year-round access to Antarctica would provide significant science benefits, including:

  • better understanding sea level rise and other climate change impacts
  • opportunities to study wildlife across the annual lifecycle of key species including krill, penguins, seals and seabirds
  • allowing scientists to research through winter.

Leading international scientists had called for improved, environmentally responsible access to Antarctica to support 21st-century science. However, the aerodrome project is likely to reduce access for scientists to Antarctica for years, due to the need to house construction workers.

Australia says the runway would have significant science benefits. Australian Antarctic Division


Australia: An Environmental Leader?

Australia has traditionally been considered an environmental leader in Antarctica. For example, in 1989 under the Hawke government, it urged the world to abandon a mining convention in favour of a new deal to ban mining on the continent.

Australia's 20 Year Action Plan promotes "leadership in environmental stewardship in Antarctica", pledging to "minimise the environmental impact of Australia's activities".

But the aerodrome proposal appears at odds with that goal. It would cover 2.2 square kilometres, increasing the total "disturbance footprint" of all nations on the continent by 40%. It would also mean Australia has the biggest footprint of any nation, overtaking the United States.

The contribution of disturbance footprint from countries in Antarctica measured from Brooks et al. 2019, with Australia's share increasing to 35% including the aerodrome proposal. Shaun Brooks

Within this footprint, environmental effects will also be intense. Construction will require more than three million cubic metres of earthworks - levelling 60 vertical metres of hills and valleys along the length of the runway. This will inevitably cause dust emissions – on the windiest continent on Earth - and the effect of this on plants and animals in Antarctica is poorly understood.

Wilson's storm petrels that nest at the site will be displaced. Native lichens, fungi and algae will be destroyed, and irreparable damage is expected at adjacent lakes.

Weddell seals breed within 500 metres of the proposed runway site. Federal environment officials recognise the dust from construction and subsequent noise from low flying aircraft have the potential to disturb these breeding colonies.

The proposed area is also important breeding habitat for Adélie penguins. Eight breeding sites in the region are listed as "important bird areas". Federal environment officials state the penguins are likely to be impacted by human disturbance, dust, and noise from construction of the runway, with particular concern for oil spills and aircraft operations.

The summer population at Davis Station will need to almost double from 120 to 250 during construction. This will require new, permanent infrastructure and increase the station's fuel and water consumption, and sewage discharged into the environment.

The AAD has proposed measures to limit environmental damage. These include gathering baseline data (against which to measure the project's impact), analysing potential effects on birds and marine mammals and limiting disturbance where practicable.

But full details won't be provided until later in the assessment process. We expect Australia will implement these measures to a high standard, but they will not offset the project's environmental damage.

Playing Politics

So given the environmental concern, why is Australia so determined to build the aerodrome? We believe the answer largely lies in Antarctic politics.

Australian officials have said the project would "contribute to both our presence and influence" on the continent. Influence in Antarctica has traditionally corresponded to the strength of a nation's scientific program, its infrastructure presence and engagement in international decision-making.

Australia is a well-regarded member of the Antarctic Treaty. It was an original signatory and claims sovereignty over 42% of the continent. It also has a solid physical and scientific presence, maintaining three large year-round research stations.

But other nations are also vying for influence. China is constructing its fifth research station. New Zealand is planning a NZ$250 million upgrade to Scott Base. And on King George Island, six stations have been built within a 5km radius, each run by different nations. This presence is hard to justify on the basis of scientific interest alone.

Getting Our Priorities Straight

We believe there are greater and more urgent opportunities for Australia to assert its leadership in Antarctica.

For example both Casey and Mawson stations – Australia's two other permanent bases – discharge sewage into the pristine marine environment with little treatment. And outdated fuel technology at Australia's three stations regularly causes diesel spills.

At Wilkes station, which Australia abandoned in the 1960s, thousands of tonnes of contaminants have been left behind.

Australia should fix such problems before adding more potentially damaging infrastructure. This would meet our environmental treaty obligations and show genuine Antarctic leadership.

Shaun Brooks is a University Associate at the University of Tasmania. Julia Jabour is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania.

Disclosure statement:

Shaun Brooks receives funding from the the Australian Antarctic Science Program (Project 4565 - Conservation Planning for Antarctic Stations).

Julia Jabour does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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