Fri, Jan 20, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Australia hopes to finish ice runway in Antarctica by 2007


In an incongruous sight for a mid summer's evening, the largest snow plows ever sent to Antarctica have set sail from Hobart, Tasmania, on a Russian freighter.

If all goes according to plan -- and in southern polar shipping it often doesn't -- the massive equipment will be unloaded by early February at Australia's Casey base on Antarctica.

Timing is everything. The summer sea ice is thin enough for entry into Casey's harbor, but the midnight sun is now just a midnight glow and true night is rapidly returning.

The Australian Antarctic divisions Airlink project manager, Charlton Clark, hopes for ideal conditions so the heavy equipment needed to construct a 4,000m blue ice runway can be put in position before the southern winter closes in.

Clark says the machinery to gouge, clear and flatten the strip will be placed on giant slides and dragged 60km by tractors to an inland site where the ice is crevasse free, at least 500m thick, and less exposed to the fierce winds and snowstorms that lash the perimeter of Antarctica.

"It could take until the summer of 2007 to have the strip ready," Clark says, although he's hoping work will be completed by mid-February next year.

"Once the strip opens, Australia and all other interested Antarctic Treaty nations will be able to dramatically improve the efficiency of their research projects," he says.

The tyranny of sea sickness, ship strandings in pack ice and voyages that can take several weeks to make the world's wildest ocean crossing will then be replaced by four-and-a-half hour jet flights.

The Airlink project will cost only A$46 million (US$34.5 million) because unlike most airports, the Wilkins Blue Ice runway won't refuel large jets, or have terminals, lounges, or shops and hotels.

Scientists will transfer directly to small ski-equipped turbo-prop aircraft to be taken direct to field camps, or to helicopters or passenger carrying tractors to reach Casey station.

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