Research station on Macquarie Island to undergo renovations

ABC News Online by Fiona Blackwood
Posted 5 Mar 2021


Extracted from ABC News On-line

5 Mar 2021

A birds eye view of the buildings on the narrow neck of an island.
There is a large logistical challenge to renovate the research station on Macquarie Island.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

As a group of tradies head south to Macquarie Island, they are preparing to set the foundations for a seven-year renovation project likely to be full of challenges.

There will be asbestos to remove, containers of building materials to be transferred from ship to shore via helicopter or an amphibious vehicle — and that’s while dealing with almost year-round rain and heavy winds.

The redevelopment will also need to find solutions to the growing frequency of ocean inundation of the low-lying site.

Add to that the problem of the station’s reliance on diesel fuel for power.

The project will not be the complete rebuild originally planned.

The federal government announced this week that plans for an entirely new station would not go ahead, but instead, the $50 million in funding would be used to renovate existing buildings.

Already, $9 million has been spent on planning.

Rob Bryson, general manager of assets and infrastructure at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), thinks renovating rather than rebuilding is a good thing.

“This is about reusing and recycling current infrastructure as well so I think it’s a good message for us,” Mr Bryson said.

“We’re trying to reduce our footprint on the island as well and make it more efficient.”

A view of buildings and small structures on an island surrounded by green mountains and blue sky.
There had been plans to build a new station on the island, but now many of the buildings will be renovated instead.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

‘It has a lot of character’

Mr Bryson said building an entirely new station could not be done with the funding given for the project.

There are 48 buildings on the site in various states of disrepair.

Some date back to 1948 and many contain asbestos.

Adrian Young, the AAD’s project manager who has visited the island three times, said the buildings were basic but had charm.

“It has a lot of character and in some ways. It adds to the mood of being on the island where the wildlife is in and around the station,” Mr Young said.

He said many expeditioners spoke fondly of the “ham shack” which was used to house ham radio equipment.

It is now used occasionally for overflow accommodation.

“It’s a really good spot to do whale spotting, seal spotting … you do quite often get pods of killer whales move past there,” Mr Young said.

It has not been decided whether the ham shack will be demolished.

A small wooden shack blends into the rugged mountainous coastline of Macquarie Island
The ‘ham shack’ was used to house ham radio equipment.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division, Andrew Winchester)

Of the 48 buildings, 28 will be removed.

Included in the remaining 20 buildings will be 10 new structures.

“We’re actually building a new living and messing quarter for the station population, we’re building a new clean air laboratory,” Rob Bryson said.

“There will be a lot more focus on flat pack and preconstructed modules that we can bring into the island.”

Remote renovation not without challenges

Mr Bryson said transporting materials to shore was a challenge.

“We have to containerise it and get it down to a suitable level and wait until we can actually fit into a LARC (light amphibious resupply craft) or slung load under a helicopter,” Mr Bryson said.

A 12-person trades team will begin work on the project early next year.

Macquarie Island
The rugged coastline of Macquarie Island can make getting materials to shore difficult.(Supplied: Tasmania Parks And Wildlife Service)

The crew currently heading south will begin preparations.

“Doing repairs to the infrastructure give it a bit more life and they will be making sure everything is ready to go when we kick off in earnest next year,” Mr Bryson said.

He said because the station is situated on a low-lying isthmus, the area can experience ocean inundation.

“We’ve got videos of 1-tonne elephant seals being swept across the isthmus in the past but they’re pretty hardy animals and able to deal with those kind of events,” Mr Bryson said.

He said work was underway to ensure the infrastructure can be protected from storm surge events.

“For an organisation renowned for studying climate change, climate change is causing issues for us,” Mr Bryson said.

“We are witnessing sea level rise and storm surge events a lot more frequently than we have in the past.”

“We’re looking at concrete barriers and other kinds of land forming civil works that we’ve put in place to actually protect that infrastructure against those kind of events in the future.”

A view of buildings on a narrow stretch of land with water either side and a mountain in the distance.
Storm surge events often see the area inundated with water from the ocean.(Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)

The Bureau of Meteorology has a presence on the island, along with the Parks and Wildlife Service and wildlife researchers.

“There’s also a nuclear test ban treaty monitoring station that keeps an eye on the atmosphere and seismology as well to uphold the conditions of the test ban treaty,” Mr Bryson said.

The revamp of the research station will also look at ways to reduce the 250,000 to 280,000 litres of diesel fuel it uses every year to generate electricity.

Mr Young said the plan is to install solar panels and use battery storage technology.

“The intensity of the sun is certainly not what you would receive here but we do get enough benefit out of it that it has some opportunities to reduce fuel and reduce the power demand,” Mr Young said.

The station was slated to be shut down by the Australian Antarctic Division in 2016, but after intense public pressure, the decision was reversed.