India's Bharati base, Larsemann Hills: AAD photo by Sandra Potter

China’s announcement that it will build an airstrip a comparatively short distance from Australia’s Davis station will make it the dominant air power in this country’s large territorial claim in Antarctica by the end of this decade.

It may also make it the major user of Hobart Airport as a technical stop for air services to the continent of ice, and its adjacent oceanic sedimentary basins, which are considered to have significant oil and gas potential.

Such use of Hobart by China to service its bases was anticipated in the Government’s recently launched 20 year Strategic Plan for Antarctica.  However the scale of China’s ambitions suggests that apart from possibly providing a refuelling stop to Antarctica, Australia’s influence and presence in the vast territory it claims is about to be bypassed and turned into an historical footnote.

Or to be blunt, render us a doormat rather than a gateway.

Australia currently seasonaly operates a long graded blue ice runway near its Casey Station for flights from Hobart by the Australian Antarctic Division Airbus A319. It could take much larger aircraft, but hasn’t. It could have been equipped with better support facilities and even an instrument landing system to extend its utility, but it wasn’t.  It suffers from surface melt degradation in the middle of the airlift season.

Australia's summer camp (Law base) at Larsemann: Photo Lucas Koleits

The solution, which has been discussed in polar science circles in Australian for some time, is to variously replace or augment Wilkins with a crushed rock runway in the Vestfold Hills near Davis Station, which would be a much more practicable facility to maintain, avoid surface melt issues, and be able to be upgraded to the same year ’round capabilities as hundreds of hard surface runways in regular use in all sort of conditions in Siberia, Alaska, Arctic Canada, and Spitsbergen.

That solution however looks like being provided by China, in that it says it will built its new runway in the Larsemann Hills, some 120 kms from Davis, and which are so arid that the wide open rocky spaces they contain carry very little by way of snow for much of the year, and are adjacent to anchorages where cargo ships and ice breakers support a growing number of coastal and inland (and high altitude) bases being built or operated by China, India and Europe funded polar science bodies.

The Larsemann Hills region is an Antarctic Specially Managed Area of high environmental importance, as well as adjacent to potential energy resources that may represent the last commercially accessible oil and gas resources on the planet.

If Australia had thought that it would be able to exercise influence over the region by being its air lift supplier, that’s a dream that is about to be snatched from its hands.

A 24 hour 365 day facility at Larsemann is an inevitability.

Hobart will be as important to this as a petrol station on a highway, and as the range and payload capabilities of heavy lift aircraft rise, of diminishing relevance to flights which could just as readily fly via Mauritius, Singapore or Denpasar to a Larsemann facility with ocean tanker maintained refuelling facilities.

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