Australia's antarctic runway melting

AUSTRALIA'S $46 million Antarctic airstrip is melting, leaving the government scrambling to find a new air link to the frozen continent.

The Wilkins runway — carved into ice near Casey station, about 3400 kilometres south-west of Hobart — was commissioned under the Howard government and hailed at its 2008 opening by then Environment Minister Peter Garrett.

But unexpected surface melt has sharply curtailed use of the summer-time airstrip.

Instead of the up to 20 chartered flights by an Airbus A-319 predicted by the Australian Antarctic Division before the runway opened, only four flights landed last season. In 2010-2011 there were two.

The division has confirmed it is examining creating a new airfield at the ice-free Vestfold Hills, with the likely — and costly — option of building a rock runway .

Division chief scientist Nick Gales recently told a parliamentary committee trends in Antarctic ice cap melt were faster than almost any records, but the pace was uneven. A University of Tasmania-led study published in 'Nature' yesterday showed a net loss of ice across Antarctica.

The division also disclosed there had been problems with ski-way access for two ski-equipped workhorse aircraft used to shuttle expeditioners between polar stations and field camps.

"So we are exploring a range of other possible options over the longer term," the spokeswoman said. "No decision has been made to stop using Wilkins runway into the future."

The first site to be investigated is the Vestfold Hills near Davis station, where a 1999 study said there was one of the few ice-free Antarctic areas with potential for construction of a conventional gravel runway.

It could be possible to build a year-round runway there big enough to handle the largest jet aircraft, according to the scoping study. But it said even a short gravel runway suitable for Hercules aircraft would be a major undertaking, and ruled out the option because of its cost.

An attempt by France to build a rock runway at its Dumont d'Urville base survived environmental protests but ended in failure in 1994 after a giant wave from an ice-shelf break-off swept over the strip, damaging it beyond repair.

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