Analysis and Commentary

Barneo expedition is back

On Friday, April 21, the last cargo plane took off from the Barneo-2017 expedition camp located on an ice floe. It was a narrow escape, just like in an action movie, because the improvised runway started disintegrating soon after the plane was airborne. This story describes the expedition.

On the morning of April 21, an AN-74 departed the Barneo-2017 camp with the last cargo for Longyearbyen in the Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Archipelago. Initially, the expedition's organizers planned to start dismantling the camp on April 24, but the ice floe began to disintegrate, and everyone had to hurry. Originally, the expedition members were supposed to calmly dismantle the camp, deliver the cargo to Longyearbyen and then return to Moscow.

When the last team of ski tourists was staying near the North Pole, a 150-meter section of the improvised runway broke off. Fortunately, it was possible to extend the runway in the opposite direction to accommodate the planes.

© Photo from Irina Orlova’s Facebook account. Barneo-2017. Courtesy of Irina Orlova

"When the last flight carrying the team and the cargo took off, everyone saw the fissure reach the runway, and four-meter hummocks formed at the butt-end," Irina Orlova, one of the Barneo camp's organizers and founders, noted.

Cultural events

Norwegian music band Advent By Poolboys performed at Barneo for five days. Their sound director and cameraman also came along because concerts always require quality sound whether at a night club in Oslo or on an ice floe somewhere in the Arctic. It was the first concert on an ice floe. No professional musicians had ever visited Barneo before. Theoretically, any band could play here, if the band isn't too big. Getting an entire symphony orchestra here might be a challenge.

This year, Barneo hosted the annual North Pole Marathon. Irishman Richard Donovan has been running the 42,195-meter marathon race with athletes from all over the world for over 14 years. Peter Suchenia from Poland won this year's race, clocking in at 4:06:34, and setting a new record. France's Frederique Laurent placed first among women at 6:21:03. "The weather was good: the Sun was bright, though it was cold and frosty, and it was easy to run along the dense ice crust over the snow," Orlova said.

Research program

The Barneo-2017 agenda included a rather limited research program because the expedition organizers failed to deliver the large laboratory needed. This year continued an 11-year program to monitor the parameters of the Arctic basin's upper water masses in the circumpolar region, said program chief Sergei Pisarev.

"This information, plus summer-time measurements, provides insight into the objective causes of possible reduction of Arctic sea ice formation," Pisarev explained, while commenting on the task of researchers.

In February, scientists recorded the smallest area of winter sea ice, an all-time low. When asked to explain these sad records, Pisarev replied that researchers had failed to find any evidence of the ocean's influence on the declining sea ice formations, and that the water masses remained stable. So, this can probably be explained by the influence of the Arctic seas or, more likely, by atmospheric influence. This year, we recorded abnormally thick 12-month-old ice formations, he said.

"You see, one drifting camp expedition is unable to take on the entire Arctic. We need to measure various parameters in many other places for several years; this is the only way to put the puzzle together. This is how the ocean needs to be studied," he explained. Two Russian scientists conducted this research, with other researchers from the Russian Defense Ministry doing their own projects.

French and US researchers studied the atmosphere, as well as the thickness and temperatures of ice, plus under ice currents and the parameters of upper water masses. Pisarev also helped assemble a monitoring unit that has an antenna and seven robotic systems. The unit will continue to relay data for another six months, and Russian scientists can also use it.

© Photo from Irina Orlova’s Facebook account. Barneo-2017. Courtesy of Irina Orlova

"One-degree" and "two-degree" tourists

People skiing one or two degrees toward the North Pole are called "one-degree" and "two-degree" tourists. This year, it took one group seven to ten days to cover 1 degree (just over 100 kilometers). And two groups of "two-degree" tourists skied from the 88th to the 90th parallel. By the way, they were the first to land on the ice floe (after a technical flight), so that they could complete their trip on time. According to Orlova, one group conducted research projects during their trip. They measured ice thickness, porosity and assessed ice condition 15 times a day. 

Polar bears

"There were many bears this year, but they didn't visit our camp," Orlova said. Skiers trying for the North Pole from the camp encountered open water, with polar bears waiting for them there. It is hard to estimate the number of polar bears, and the ski teams regularly drove the bears off. An expedition member even fired at a polar bear; but it is unclear whether it was killed or wounded. The Association of Polar Guides will investigate the incident.

Cozy camp

This year, camp organizers decided to make the expedition's life more comfortable. A hanging space was built in to the mess hall where visitors could leave their coats instead of hanging their jackets on chairs, like before. The mess hall could hold many more people this time.

Separate waste collection was also introduced with containers for paper, glass, plastic and food leftovers. European tourists who are used to this at home liked the arrangement. Everyone in the 2017 expedition unfailingly honored this rule. Trash cans were also installed all over the camp. People tried hard to keep the camp clean, with everyone removing snow from the paths each day.

"People living in civilized areas may find these little changes a bit naïve, but they make things easier in an ice expedition, and life seems a bit brighter," Orlova noted. The expedition members who spent three weeks at the Barneo-2017 camp are likely to agree with her.