Antarctica goes by a couple of nicknames – the seventh continent, the frozen south, or simply “the ice”. The photos of its formidable landscapes and ice-covered land masses seem like shots filmed somewhere on Mars. Though it might seem inaccessible to mere mortals, there are several airports across Antarctica and getting there by cruisers is also possible. For this reason, it’s not surprising that thousands of tourists visit it on a yearly basis.
Still, getting there regardless of your means of transport comes with a few strings attached. Though flying to Antarctica has only recently become an option, it is not an average tourist destination that you can back-pack in a day or two. It is the windiest, driest and the coldest place on Earth – though, truth be told, it might as well be out of this world.
What is Antarctica?
Before we delve into aerial paths that lead to and across this frozen wasteland, it’s important that we fully understand what Antarctica actually is and why there is quite a handful of things to consider before traveling there.
First of all, Antarctica is immense. It covers the surface of 14 million square kilometers while its coastline stretches along 11 000 miles. Average ice thickness is around jaw-dropping 1.6 kilometers and temperatures fluctuate between +10°C in the summer and −40°C in winter. These two seasons are the only two seasons that exist in such barren parts of the world.
The human settlements in Antarctica are not exactly towns as we know them. These human colonies are there solely for scientific purposes. The scientists and expeditions don’t reside there for indefinite periods of time. Instead, they stay for a couple of months, usually during summer while only a handful of scientist actually stay there during merciless winters.
Though not abundant like many other parts of the world, animal and plant life on the South Pole sure does exist. Penguins and seals populate the icy continent while the only two plant species that actually live here are Antarctic pearlwort and Antarctic hair grass. The South Pole is one of the least diverse eco-systems in the world but it also contains 70 percent of the world’s fresh water.
Read more: Is Antarctica Actually a Desert?
Is There an Airport in Antarctica?
Back in the day, the only way to get to Antarctica was to be a scientist on an expedition ship. It was only later that visitor tours were allowed. Nowadays, travelers can choose whether they prefer cruising to Antarctica or flying there.
The reason why Antarctica has been kept in such high regard is its sheer icy might and enormous potential for exploration. Having been untouched for centuries on end, it was protected by the Antarctic Treaty back in 1957. The consultative parties i.e. the countries who signed the treaty, pledged to demilitarize Antarctica and ensure that “Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes” (Art. I, The Antarctic Treaty). Since then, the South Pole is available for research and only a limited number of tourist visits every year.
Due to its specific geographical location and mostly inaccessible coastline, the nearest spots to embark on a journey to Antarctica are Australia, South America, or New Zealand. Airports are usually found very close to scientific bases and outposts although these are not the mega-airports we are accustomed to. The only intercontinental flights are conducted from Troll Airfield, located 6.8 kilometers from Norwegian Troll Station and they usually operate from Cape Town International Airport.
The airstrips on the South Pole are extremely high-maintenance and need regular care. With all the dry ice constantly forming on the surface, notoriously strong wind, and hostile temperatures, aviation procedures require maximum care. Specialized jet aircraft are operated by professional pilots and they all have assisted take-off while being ski-equipped for missions around the South Pole.
List of Airports in Antarctica
After the Treaty was signed, the parties agreed that individual countries should have their own outposts and research bases. The bases that have been formed throughout Antarctica usually have their own runways provided that they are large and significant enough. Among the leading base camps are those belonging to the United States, Russia, Australia, Chile, and the United Kingdom. All airports have their unique ICAO codes, meaning that they are governed by air traffic control. Still, official landing facilities and developed public airports do not exist in Antarctica.
The UK Airports in Antarctica
The United Kingdom holds several bases: Fossil Bluff, Halley Research Station, Rothera Research Station, Sky Blu, and Wolfs Fang Runway. Fossil Bluff, an air operations refueling facility is a kilometer away from a skiway. Apart from refueling, the station is also a jumping-off point for other operations into Antarctica. Fossil Bluff is only 90 minutes’ flight from Rothera, a research station on Adelaide Island. Rothera has 2,950 ft gravel runway and it’s home to a fleet of five specially adapted aircraft. Halley Research Station has its ice runway, serving as a transit point to Rothera. Sky Blu is located in Palmer Land and in an area of extremely dense ice, providing it with a sturdy runway with 3,960 feet in length. Wolfs Fang Runway is a private runway belonging to a luxury travel company White Desert Ltd.
The US Airports in Antarctica
The United States Antarctic Program is based in McMurdo Station on Ross Island. This is where Ice Runway is located – the principal runway of the US Program. It is one of the few that can handle four-wheel aircraft, such as Lockheed, Orion, and Boeing and it’s 10,000 feet long. McMurdo was serviced by three runways: Pegasus White, the main Ice Runway, and Williams Field. In 2017, Phoenix Airfield was made to replace Pegasus. The Jack F. Paulus Skiway (runway length: 12,000 ft) is located at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, named in honor of Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott, the pioneers to the South Pole. Union Glacier Blue-Ice Runway (runway length: 9,842 ft) is also one of the capital runways and it’s operated by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions providing tours to the interior of Antarctica as well as expedition support. The remaining two stations include Palmer (runway length: 2,500 ft) and Patriot Hills (runway length: 3,281 ft) which was once the only private seasonally occupied camp but today, it’s a backup runway.
Russian Airports in Antarctica
Formally annexed by Norway in 2015, Queen Maud Land covers a massive 2.7 million square kilometers of Antarctica’s surface. Still, the territory has 12 active research stations and one of them is Russian Novolazarevskaya Station. It is open to research-related flights and commercial airline companies flying passengers. Molodyozhnaya Station (runway length: 8,395 ft) operates on a seasonal basis while Progress Station (runway length: 3,280 ft) is now a scientific wintering complex.
Australian Airports in Antarctica
Being rather close to Antarctica, Australia has a few of its own bases there. However, Australia operates a sole runway aerodrome – Wilkins Runway (10,499 ft), which is used to transport scientists and it’s unavailable for tourist flights. As one of three permanent bases, the Casey Station is pivotal for the Australian Antarctic program. There is also a smaller Casey Station Skiway (runway length: 6,547 ft) which is 10 kilometers east of the main station. There are also the Davis Station (runway length: 317 ft) and Mawson, serving for exclusively scientific purposes.
Chile Airports in Antarctica
As one of the rare gravel airports in Antarctica, the Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin Airport is served by various public flights, including fly/cruise. Not only is it the only one that has an IATA code (location identifier) but it’s also a part of Chile’s Antártica commune. Bernardo O’Higgins base (runway length: 2,625 ft) is the capital of Antártica Commune and one of the oldest Antarctica bases ever founded.
Obviously, Antarctica has a lot of airports although a great majority of them is not used by the general public. By restricting the number of tourist visits, the goal or conservationists and scientists is to salvage these unique ecosystems from dying out, especially when global warming and ice melting has become such a huge concern.