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Ice Cracks and Tensions Rise at a North Pole Camp

Barneo, a Russian-operated research camp on Arctic ice, hosts hundreds of North Pole-bound visitors every spring. But its future, thanks to challenging ice conditions and rising Norway-Russia tensions, may be in jeopardy.

Written by Samia Madwar Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Ice Camp Barneo in 2008. Wikimedia/Leonid Plenkin

When Mark Wood, Paul Vicary and Mark Langridge began charting their North Pole expedition two years ago, they planned to follow a conventional route, by Arctic explorer standards, trekking to the top of the world from the nearest coastline – Ward Hunt Island in Nunavut, Canada. For 35 days in the spring of 2016, the seasoned U.K. explorers would cross 870km (470 nautical miles) of the frozen Arctic Ocean, filming the ice along the way for a documentary on climate change.

With temperatures in the Arctic hitting record highs and sea ice shrinking year by year, Wood predicted their expedition might be one of the last of its kind. But as he later discovered, they almost missed their window. By the time the team set out on April 14, they had already dramatically rerouted their journey. Instead of beginning at Ward Hunt Island, they would start at 88 degrees north, near Barneo, a Russian-operated base camp in the Arctic Ocean, and cover 200km (108 nautical miles) to the North Pole.

In part, dangerous ice conditions were to blame. But other factors also came into play, including provocative military exercises, a sharp news report and a bureaucratic standoff between Norway and Russia. Like the increasingly temperamental Arctic ice, access to the North Pole may have been altered forever.

Building on Frozen Ground

In 2001, Irina Orlova, an aviation economist, and her husband, Alexander Orlov, a polar pilot, visited a rudimentary base near the North Pole, funded by the Russian government. When pressed, Orlova wouldn’t specify what it was being used for at the time, but indicated she and her husband, who’d visited as tourists, found the whole operation lacking.

“[Alexander] was kind of horrified by the level of safety, and I was disappointed with the level of comfort,” Orlova wrote in an email to Arctic Deeply. Starting in 2002, the couple took over, investing their own money to upgrade the camp’s facilities. Today, they continue to operate Barneo under the auspices of the non-profit Russian Geographical Society, though the camp itself is technically in international waters. (The name “Barneo” is a play on Borneo, a lush, tropical island in Southeast Asia.)

Now, every year around April, when the ice is still thick enough to support aircraft and other heavy equipment, the camp hosts up to 250 visitors from around the world. They include tourists, scientists, divers, TV and film crews, dignitaries, leading explorers and even athletes running the annual North Pole Marathon. Most fly into and out of the camp via the airport in Svalbard, Norway, one of the nearest airports that’s also easily accessible to Western visitors.

Though Orlova couldn’t offer an estimate of the station’s annual revenue, she said the costs of running it are considerable: The fuel alone amounts to 1 million euros ($1.12 million).

Toward the end of April, the camp is dismantled and stored at a facility in Svalbard, wrapping up the North Pole season until the following spring. For more than a decade, it’s been the picture of international cooperation – until recently.

Cracks in the Plan

For Orlova, the 2016 season proved to be the camp’s most challenging yet. Ice conditions were exceptionally poor. Large ice hummocks and open water leads made construction and travel especially risky. According to the official Barneo blog, shifting ice caused the runway, as well as the back-up runway, to crack four times in two weeks.

The unstable ice left visitors stranded on Svalbard. But for Wood, whose team was among those grounded, the runway reports were not entirely convincing. “The ice cracks every friggin’ year,” he said. It couldn’t be the sole cause of delay.

He also noted he’d had to change the expedition route several times. The team had to scrap their initial plan for various logistical and safety reasons. But then they had to drop their alternative, which involved trekking to the North Pole from the coast of Russia, when he and his companions were denied Russian visas just weeks before the start of the trip.

Though Wood tried twice, he could get no explanation for the visa denial. He later speculated if the expedition had gone ahead with Plan B, it might have coincided with Russian and Chechen military exercises at the North Pole.

Since 2014, the Russian Airborne Troops have conducted military exercises at the North Pole during the spring. The logistics are coordinated by the Russian Geographical Society’s Expedition Center, the same unit that operates Barneo.

This past April was no exception: Russian and Chechen paratroopers conducted independent military exercises at the North Pole and at Barneo. But, according to the Norway-based newspaper the Independent Barents Observer, this year instructors and equipment were flown into Barneo via Svalbard. The report suggests that action might constitute a violation of the Svalbard Treaty, which prohibits military activity on the island. In response, Orlova issued a statement on Facebook, insisting the paratroopers flew in from Murmansk, and that the exercises did not violate Norwegian law.

Still, Norwegian authorities tightened regulations around flying into and out of Svalbard, said Orlova. “According to the new rules, it’s required to get an approval for each flight 48 hours before,” she wrote in an email to Arctic Deeply.

But a representative from the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority, which is responsible for takeoff and landing permits, said the 48-hour requirement has been in place since before Barneo was established. A new regulation was introduced in July 2015, requiring complete passenger lists for flights to and from Svalbard.

Most visitors eventually reached Barneo this past spring. But shortly before the season ended, Orlova, apparently frustrated with the delays, declared Barneo’s crew and equipment would no longer fly out of Svalbard. Starting in 2017, they would instead use a base at Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in Russia. The equipment has already been moved out of the Svalbard storage facility, and Barneo’s Facebook page updates show facility upgrades on Franz Josef Land are well underway.

This development could change how future expeditions, scientists, tourists and others reach the North Pole, including new visa requirements and travel routes. And although visitors could theoretically still reach Barneo via Svalbard or other nearby airports, Barneo officials would have greater control over their ice runway: “Any planes can land there after signing a contract with us,” said Orlova.

For Wood, whose team reached the North Pole on April 25, what matters is ensuring Barneo’s operations continue. He is even mentoring an expedition team hoping to make the North Pole trek next year.

“[Barneo] serves a great purpose,” he said. “It allows people to fulfill their dreams; it allows scientists to get close to the pole. It’s a real necessity, and I hope it keeps going for years and years.”

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