Brazen: Australia plans to build $2 billion concrete airstrip at base in Antarctic

by | Feb 25, 2021 | Energy & Environment

While Australia criticises other countries for their expansionist policies, it claims to own 42% of Antarctica. And although citing a “staunch commitment” to environmental protection of the Antarctic, proposes to build a $2 billion concrete aerodrome at its Davis base. Brian Toohey reports.

Australia bluntly states that it has sovereignty – not just a claim – over 5.9 million square kilometres of Antarctica plus a 2 million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone offshore.

Undeterred by its treaty obligations, Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper stated without equivocation, “We have sovereignty over 42 per cent of the continent, including sovereign rights over adjacent offshore areas.”

At the time, I assumed this was an inadvertent error. However, when I recently asked the Department of Foreign Affairs, it said Australia’s sovereignty “was established in 1936 following a transfer of the territory from Britain”.

Absurd claim

In the absence of widespread international recognition, this meant nothing. The claim was rendered irrelevant when Australia signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 and ratified it in 1961. The treaty does not recognise any country as having sovereignty over any part of the Antarctic.

Furthermore, although the White Paper said Australia is “staunchly committed” to environmental protection in the Antarctic, this is hard to reconcile with its current proposal to build a 2.7 kilometre concrete aerodrome at its Davis base – one of three bases it uses on a narrow ice-free strip on the edge of the continent to perform scientific research.

Only 19 people are at Davis in winter when the weather is often atrocious for flying. Yet the concrete aerodrome is estimated to cost more than $2 billion so that a year-round service can be provided.

Contrary to Australia’s professed commitment to protecting the environment, the 10-year effort to transport construction materials for the aerodrome and level the rocky site will seriously harm plants and wildlife colonies near the base and interrupt research in summer or winter.

Australia’s huge footprint

Tasmanian researchers Shaun Brooks and Julia Jabour cite authoritative data showing the aerodrome and associated construction is estimated to increase Australia’s “disturbance” footprint from 6 per cent to 35 per cent of the total. This is the largest of the 29 countries operating 70 research stations in the Antarctic.

The US’ footprint is 24 per cent, Russia’s 13 per cent, Japan’s 6 per cent and China’s 5 per cent. The figure for France and many others is only 2 per cent.

President Dwight Eisenhower and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev were instrumental in establishing the Antarctic Treaty as one of the great diplomatic accomplishments of the 20th century.

US support for the treaty was a sharp departure from its stance in 1957 when archival documents show its joint military chiefs ordered staff to draw up plans for the “establishment now of US claims to those portions of the Antarctic, including those claimed by allies, to which we have a basis for valid claims”.

The treaty entrenches non-militarisation of the continent and promotes international scientific cooperation and environmental protection. The continent is administered with a light touch by 29 countries conducting research there.

As well as refusing to recognise that any country has sovereignty, the treaty explicitly states that no new claims, or enlargement of existing claims, are allowed.

Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand Norway and the UK maintain the claims they asserted before 1959. Apart from Australia’s fanciful insistence that it owns 42 per cent of the continent, the other six countries claim 38 per cent while 20 per cent remains unclaimed. No other countries accept these claims.

Subject to strict conditions, countries can claim Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles offshore. In 1984 the Hawke government took the bold step of claiming an offshore EEZ in Antarctica. In response, the US sent a formal note pointing out:

“It is a well-established principle that the sovereign rights over an EEZ derive from the sovereignty of the coastal state over adjacent land territory. The US must reiterate its long-standing position that it does not recognise any claim to territories in Antarctica.”

The US position is unchanged ­­— ­­and correct.

Australia criticises other countries

Yet Australia continues to criticise other countries supposedly usurping territory illegally, such as China, in the much smaller South China Sea, where conflicting claims of the littoral states to resources such as fish or oil this sea attract intense global publicity.

In 2016 the Philippines won a Law of the Sea Tribunal case that rejected an EEZ  based on historic claims made by China to geographical “features”. Although unlikely at this stage, it would be better if China used the Antarctic treaty as a template to persuade all the littoral states to put their claims on indefinite hold and demilitarise the South China Sea.

While China has fallen foul in international tribunals, so too has Australia and the UK. Australia lost a court case in The Hague after it used the Australian Secret Intelligence Service to help it prevent the impoverished new nation of East Timor achieving a fair distribution of resource boundaries between East Timor and Australia.

Similarly, despite Britain being 13,000 kilometres from the Falkland Islands, it rejected a 2016 UN Commission finding that Argentina’s maritime boundary should include the Falklands. Britain is also on the losing end of legal cases that bolster Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Britain severed this archipelago from Mauritius colony in 1965, promising to give it back after independence. Instead, it removed the inhabitants from one of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia, and leased it to the US for use as a massive military base. The International Court of Justice in 2019 found that Britain should end its administration of the Chagos archipelago because it had not been legally separated from Mauritius. Britain refuses.

If Australia wants to be regarded as a good international citizen, it should abandon its absurd claim to have sovereign ownership of 42 per cent of Antarctica. Australia should also scrap the proposal for the aerodrome. Planes able to land on snow should continue to be used if necessary.


Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey began his career in journalism as a political correspondent at the Australian Financial Review in 1973. He edited the National Times in the 1980s and has contributed to numerous publications. He is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.


  1. Avatar

    I’m calling it now, This is10 year money funnel for the libs to skim money out of. And 100% it’s going to be “built” by their super trustworthy mates.

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    So paranoid. Another step in the arms race with China, without China knowing there is a race for Antarctica.

    There are so many warmongers in the government, in a bubble with anti-China rhetoric on a feedback loop. And it appeals to News Corp.

    • Avatar

      Err.. Look at a map.
      Long way from China.
      Not even the dullest mind in our government can really conceive of there being a threat.
      Can they?

    • Avatar

      The article did not mention that two of China’s bases are located with the Australian claim.
      We can also expect that China would behave itself in Antarctica along the same line as it behaves itself in the South China Sea.
      Finally, what other concrete airstrips of similar dimensions already exist in Antarctica?

  3. Avatar

    Australians do not ‘need’ in any sense, 42% of Antarctica, and the COALition’s record of corruption reduces ground for comfort. But access to the immediate area of the South Pole is arguably vital for scientific research.

  4. Avatar

    Transfer that $2Billion to the disabled and poverty areas of today’s world, put money into today’s university research and climate change jobs.

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    So no sources listed as to what actual damage this aerodrome might do.
    You cant just say: “to transport construction materials for the aerodrome and level the rocky site will seriously harm plants and wildlife colonies near the base and interrupt research in summer or winter” and have ZERO evidence or sources to suggest this. I would suggest its actually wrong, due to the fact that Antarctica is mostly empty and they arent going to pick the few spots that have penguin colonies toi build over…. also how could it stop research?
    This is actually a great idea and this article is just anti-Australian.

    • Avatar

      Just because no sources were included doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Have you looked to see if there are any. You are also just given an opinion without sources also. It makes perfect sense to me that it will cause environmental problems if Australia does this. I feel there has been enough damage to the environment surrounding Australia. How do you know where the penguin colonies are and if this will interfere with their habitats. There are birds, seals and whales that live in the Antarctica. Building a “2.7 kilometre concrete aerodrome” will cause destruction to the environment There will be plant and bug species also. Besides, reading the article Australia has no legal claim on the land.

  7. Avatar

    This is of interest but the tragedy is that the author is not published elsewhere. Can anyone explain why

  8. Avatar

    makes me think of the Brits and Diago Garcia

    the US wants a base in Antarctica so they get Australia to grab the space and 99 year lease it for yet another US military base

    all Scumo can think of is the next election so the US will make a down payment and tell us to go away

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