Australia's Antarctic airstrip melts
Australia's airstrip in Antarctica is melting, prompting a scramble to find a new way to supply its research bases on the icy continent
24 October, 2012
Researchers said global warming has caused the glacial ice on the runway to turn to mush just four years after it was built for about £30 million. It was due to receive about 20 flights each summer but only six have been able to land in the past two years.
The runway was supposed to service Australia's three stations on the continent, Casey, Davis and Mawson. The stations can also be supplied via an American runway or by ships, which take about a fortnight to arrive from Tasmania. The flights take less than five hours.
The Australian Antarctic Division said global warming was causing the ice to melt faster than had been expected. Six flights are due to land on the runway in the coming months but none will be permitted in January.
"There (are) signs there's a long-term warming trend, global warming," Tony Fleming, the division's director, told 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." Scientists say temperatures have risen about two degrees in the past 50 years in the Antarctic peninsula - almost triple that of the global temperature rise.
Australian scientists will look at building a new runway in an ice-free site called Vestfold Hills, near the Davis station.
"During the first few years since the introduction of Australia's airlink to Antarctica in 2007-8 our operations have, on occasions, been hampered by glacial melt at the current Wilkins runway," said a spokesperson for the Australian Antarctic Division.
"The Australian Antarctic Division will investigate a range of alternative or additional landing sites for fixed-wing aircraft near our three stations in Antarctica." The Division's chief scientist told a parliamentary committee recently that the Arctic ice cap was melting faster than almost any other recorded thaw outs, but the pace has been uneven.
Despite the melting runway, an Australian supply ship, the Aurora Australis, is currently stuck in Antarctica because there is too much ice.