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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Melting Runway

A Friend emailed me this story. I'm not sure where it came from, but I take zero credit other than sharing the story.   

Australia’s frozen Antarctic runway is melting

Australian scientists have discovered the perils of creating a multi-million dollar frozen runway in Antarctica – the airstrip is melting. 

 A passenger jet lands on the purpose-built Wilkins glacial runway in Antartica shortly after it opened in 2007
  • A melting surface has started to restrict the use of 
  • Australia's purpose-built Wilkins glacial runway in Antarctica
The government’s Antarctic research agency is searching for an alternative aircraft landing site for planes supplying Australia’s three bases on the frozen continent after the Aus$45 million (£29 million) Wilkins runway began to disappear due to unexpected surface melt.

Australia has three stations on the icy continent - Casey, Davis and Mawson - occupied during summer months by dozens of scientists and support staff, and the Wilkins runway, which was carved into 500m of glacial blue ice four years ago, provides a vital transport link. 

The 4km (2.5 miles)-long runway, located near Australia’s Casey station, about 3400km south-west of Tasmania off the Australian mainland, was hailed when it was opened by then Environment Minister Peter Garrett in 2008 as revolutionizing the country’s scientific research capabilities. 

However a melting surface has started to restrict use of the landing strip and the Australian Antarctic Division has announced they are now looking at alternatives for fixed-wing aircraft. 
Other options being investigated by the organization include building a more expensive rock runway on the ice-free Vestfold Hills near the Davis station. 

 Penguins congregate on an ice floe near the runway on Wilkes Land in the Australian Antarctic Territory
 Penguins congregate on an ice floe near the runway on Wilkes Land, 
near where the Wilkins Runway is located

“During the first few years since the introduction of Australia’s airlink to Antarctica in 2007/08 our operations have, on occasions, been hampered by glacial melt at the current Wilkins runway,” a spokesperson said earlier today. 

“The Australian Antarctic Division will investigate a range of alternative or additional landing sites for fixed-wing aircraft near our three stations in Antarctica.” 

Meteorological stations have shown a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius in the past 50 years in the Antarctic peninsula, which is roughly triple that of the global temperature rise. Planes can only land if the temperature is below minus 5 degrees Celsius. 

The Wilkins Runway is operated by Australia on Wilkes Land, in the Australian Antarctic Territory. 

It was initially predicted by the Australian Antarctic Division to provide 20-30 flights from Hobart each summer season, however only two flights were able to land over the 2010/11 season due to the runway being closed from December to February because of the melt. Four landed last season and six are planned this year. 

The Australian bases are also serviced by ship but the journey can take up to two weeks, compared to the 4.5 hour flight from Hobart in Tasmania. 

The US operates three runways in Antarctica, including an ice runway near the McMurdo Station which is constructed at the start of each summer season and is capable of handling wheeled aircraft. 

Two degrees in 50 years? 
That's enough to melt a runway.     
Have you ever landed here? 


  1. A great story, Karlene and thanks for sharing it. Yes, this is important! If the frigging runway melts or is covered with inches of standing melt water, where does one land? I wonder what the braking efficiency tables look like for an ice runway, possibly covered with water. Does it get any slicker? Perhaps the procedure is to land, use reversers if possible and set the auto brake to negative one and hope that the wheels will spin up. Does t he Airbus have an auto brake setting called Slip & Slide? I'm glad that the runway is 4.2Km long... Regards, -C.

    1. That's really funny. We'll need a super slippery contamination chart. You would think the water on top would melt.
      I'm working on a comedy... may I use the "slip and slide" auto brake setting? :)

    2. Slip & Slide belongs to you (comedy or otherwise), but it is probably copyrighted by the company that makes a kid's backyard toy of the same name.
      Still, a wonderful post.

    3. Thank you! On... we'll make sure we call it "&" because the original is 'n... Do they still sell those things?

  2. Yikes, I never even thought of something like that with all the warming that's going on (didn't think about the runway being ice, of course,but now I am!). Thanks for the fascinating story.

    1. It is quite interesting. As a pilot, I sure wouldn't want to land my plane on that melting runway. Despite what some may think, the earth's warming is a real thing and impacting many realities.

    2. Oh yes. I have to believe that the warming trend (while mostly natural) is a very real thing. In the everyday world, I cannot think of a slicker surface that ice, covered with a thin layer of water. There is nothing for the tires to hang onto. Your reversers may help for a while, but once below rudder authority speed, I think you'd better hope for zero wind and an exceptionally long runway. Or toss out some anchors, equal drag bilaterally, of course. What an awful scenario for a pilot.

    3. I know! Can you imagine. The momentum of that plane. No... nothing slicker. I'm going to ask the question during recurrent of what chart we use. lol. Zero wind for sure. Unless it's right on the nose and a cushion of air.

  3. Wow that's just crazy! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I have been picking up extra trips. I thought it was okay to drive the Prius to the airport. You can blame me for melting runways!

  5. Actually, I drive a Hynadi. Gets great gas milage. Sold the Tahoe last summer because the I couldnt drive past a gas station.

    I saw a interview with Ted Turner's son the other night. Ted drives his Prius to the airport before he gets on the private jet. His excuse is that his carbon footprint is still small because he has lots of trees.

    1. Well.. I seriously walk... and when I have to take the babies, the big car. But other than that the little Mitsubishi. And I have trees. I love trees. I will not cut trees. So we all justify... even Ted. I wonder if he jet pools.


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