A complex international operation in Antarctica is under way to medevac an Australian expeditioner with help from China and the United States.
The Australian Antarctic Programme said on Monday that two separate ice runways were being built as part of a complex operation to transfer the patient from Australia’s Davis research station in the Antarctic back home to Australia. The patient has a medical condition not related to Covid-19.
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Kim Ellis, the Australian Antarctic division director, said the medical evacuation process relied on aviation support from the Chinese and US Antarctic programmes. Australia does not have its own intracontinental aviation this southern summer – in Antarctica summer is October to March – because of fears of spreading Covid-19 to the icy continent.
“This operation is a testament to the strong international cooperation that exists in Antarctica, where nations band together and support each other in what can be a hostile and challenging environment,” Ellis said. “We are really pleased this first stage of this multi-phased operation, involving helicopters, planes and ships, is under way.”
Personnel in the Antarctic will take three to five days to build one runway on the ice plateau behind Davis station, according to the Australian Antarctic Programme.
A helicopter from the nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long 2 helped fly a team of five, along with more than 1 tonne (1.1 ton) of equipment, to the ski landing area by Davis late on Sunday. A Chinese helicopter will also be used to transfer the Australian patient to the runway inland of Davis station, according to Ellis.
Xue Long 2 had been headed to the Chinese Zhongshan research station on the continent after leaving New Zealand late last month.
As the Davis runway is being constructed, another glacial runway will be built around 1,400km (870 miles) away at Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome, the Antarctic terminal where planes first touch down on the continent.
Ellis said the medevac plan involved a US Basler aircraft taking off from McMurdo Station, the main US station in Antarctica, to Wilkins Aerodrome within the next few days. An Australian doctor will join the crew on board, and the Basler will land on the newly built runway near Davis to pick up the patient, before returning to Wilkins, he said.
“Of course, overlaying this entire operation is the factor we can’t control, which is the Antarctic weather, but we are hoping the weather windows at both locations will line up,” Ellis said.
From the Wilkins Aerodrome, the patient will be flown on an Airbus A319 to the Australian city of Hobart, or must wait to return to Australia by ship “if the ice temperatures are not cold enough for a larger plane to land”, he said.
The Wilkins facility operates between October and March in the Antarctic summer but has to close for six weeks during the height of summer because warmer temperatures cause melting below the surface.
The Australian Antarctic Programme said it had taken Covid-19 precautions, including quarantine, social distancing and deep cleaning aircraft, and that crew on the US and Chinese aircraft had also undergone quarantine before reaching Antarctica.
Spanish-language media reported that coronavirus reached the continent for the first time, when 36 individuals at Chile‘s Chile’s O’Higgins research base tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday. They have since been evacuated to Chile.
The cooperative operation between Australia, China and the US comes despite ongoing tensions between Beijing and Canberra as well as between Beijing and Washington over strategic issues on trade, technology and claims of Chinese repression in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.
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