To go on any kind of expedition to the North Pole in recent years, plans almost certainly included setting out from the Barneo camp, a Russian basecamp set up each spring. Most who make stopovers at Barneo fly there from Longyearbyen, Norway. The camp is usually set up at 89 degrees latitude, roughly 70 miles from the North Pole. For weeks now, preparations have been underway for the scientists, skiers, government officials, and travelers planning to head for Barneo, including nearly 50 people expecting to take part in the North Pole Marathon.
But after political squabbling between Russia, which operates the base, and Ukraine, which typically supplies planes and pilots to ferry people and supplies, followed by a spate of unstable weather, those who operate the camp decided it was safest to cancel the expedition season.
The window for North Pole expeditions is incredibly short. Unlike the South Pole which is situated on land, the North Pole lies over shifting sea ice. Once the harsh winter weather clears, the season for safe passage over the ice can be as short as a few weeks. This year, Barneo was meant to open on April 1, but the delay as Russia and Ukraine argued over flight approvals pushed the season opening back by 10 days, until it was decided it was too risky to start sending skiers and runners and researchers out into the ice fields.
Eric Larsen, longtime polar adventurer, was among those waiting in Longyearbyen for the season to open.
“It’s a perfectly logical decision, and in one sense, a relief,” he wrote on his blog. “We have been living in uncertainty for so long that the only thing better than a ‘yes’ is a ‘no’ in this situation. There is a reason why these things happen in a place like this. It is untamed wilderness—one of the last great frontiers left on planet Earth. No matter how much we try to wrangle it into compliance for a few weeks every Spring, the sea ice still has the final say. At least for now. I fear that the opportunity to do these types of adventures will not last. While I’m positive the North Pole season next year (and many years into the future) will go off without a hitch, the clock is running out on ice; and that, more than the cancellation of this season, makes me sad.”
No doubt also sad are the runners preparing for the marathon and skiers hoping to glide to the pole, who have spent thousands of dollars they won’t see again to get as far as Longyearbyen. Last year was already one of the shortest North Pole seasons on record, due to weather and ice conditions. Who knows what 2020 will bring.
Top Photo: Jose Naranjo and Juan Pablo de la Rua ski towards the North Pole, April 2016.
Photo by Tommy Heinrich