Penguins would be unwelcome neighbors to one of the world’s most remote projects if the Australian government goes ahead with plans to build an all-weather airport in East Antarctica, 5,000 km from Hobart, Tasmania.

While environmental studies continue for the airport near Davis Station, the government invited expressions of interest in December, with plans to award a construction contract in mid-2022. The Davis concrete runway could open as the first in Antarctica in about 2040.

Launched in May 2018, the Davis project is planned to occupy two sq km of wilderness in the Vestfold Hills region, a few kilometres from Australia’s Davis research. It would replace a seasonal ice runway at Wilkins Aerodrome, 1,400 km from Davis.

Inviting public comment on the project a year ago, Kim Ellis, director of the Australian Antarctic Division, acknowledged, the aerodrome’s construction and operations would have “some unavoidable environmental impacts.”

Building the 2.7 km runway and associated infrastructure would require 11,500 precast concrete slabs each weighing 10 tonnes to be imported, as well as a construction camp for 250 workers.

As the largest ever project in the region, the aerodrome would cause significant damage, according to Shaun Brooks and Julia Jabour of the University of Tasmania.

About three million cu m of earthworks, including leveling hills and valleys, would raise dust “on the windiest continent” with unknown impacts to plants and animals, they note.

And it would destroy native lichens, fungi and algae and damage adjacent lakes. Breeding sites of Weddell seals and Adélie penguins would be disturbed.

While continuing investigations into the project, the government has started. procuring an alliance type construction contract. Logistics would be a major challenge for any successful bidder, requiring one or two cargo deliveries by icebreaker and ice-strengthened vessels for up to 10 years.