Australia Wants to Build a Huge Concrete Runway in Antarctica. Here’s Why That’s a Bad Idea
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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