Icy runway to get face-lift

Photo of blue ice runway with plane
Wilkins runway is built on a 500 metre thick glacier, which moves downhill towards the coast about 12 metres a year, it also rotates anti-clockwise about 1.5 metres per year (Photo: Chris Crerar)
Plant machinery blowing snow clear of the runwayPhoto of expeditioners walking over ice runway with plane in the background.

The final flight of the Antarctic season is due to take off for Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome tomorrow, ahead of a face-lift planned for the glacial runway next season.

After a decade of operation, engineering works will be undertaken on the blue ice runway in the summer of 2018–19 to reposition the strip.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s General Manager of Operations Dr Rob Wooding, said the 3.5 kilometre strip, near Australia’s Casey research station, is an incredible feat of engineering.

“The runway is built on a 500 metre thick glacier, which moves downhill towards the coast about 12 metres a year, it also rotates anti-clockwise about 1.5 metres per year,” Dr Wooding said.

“Every summer the runway is surveyed to ensure compliance and every three years it is moved back up the glacier.

“However the runway has now accumulated about 20 metres of rotation that also needs to be corrected.”

The runway will close for a three month period, from mid-November 2018 to mid-February 2019. It normally closes at the height of each summer for about five weeks, due to warmer temperatures causing potential sub-surface melt.

The Australian Antarctic Division will run a maximum of 10 flights, before and after the shutdown.

“The Division aims to minimise the impact of the closure on planned projects by transporting some expeditioners south on the icebreaker Aurora Australis, or postponing programs,” Dr Wooding said.

Australian Antarctic Division’s Acting Aviation Manager Steve Wall, said the team of eight expeditioners stationed at Wilkins will undertake the engineering works.

“They’ll use a range of graders, dozers, loaders and snow groomers to cut into blue ice and remove approximately 300,000 cubic meters of ice from the northern edge of the runway.”

“The works will ensure Wilkins Aerodrome can continue to operate for another 10 years, and that it will be ready to support major projects scheduled for the following season (2019–2020), including establishing an overland traverse capability and the search for a million year ice core.”

The last flight of the year on an Airbus 319 will take off from the Antarctic gateway city of Hobart tomorrow.

About 550 expeditioners travelled south with the Australian Antarctic Program by air and sea this season, undertaking nearly 100 projects including deep field ice core work, glacier research and Southern Ocean cloud studies.

Icy runway gets face-lift

Video transcript

Steve Wall: We'll be taking about 300,000 cubic metres of ice out of the northern runway edge to lower the height of the runway. 

We will probably be doing roughly 10 flights over the season, five at the beginning and five towards the end, to keep the capacity to open up the stations and get people in at the beginning of the season, and we will still of course have our shipping program, so that will give us access throughout the season. 

[end transcript]