North Pole 6 chronicles: Drifting 8,700 kilometers on an ice floe
The North Pole 6 polar station operated from the spring of 1956 through the fall of 1959. During this period it accommodated four crews and drifted 8,700 kilometers. Sergei Serlapov narrates the life of the Soviet polar explorers who braved the severe Arctic environment and worked and lived on the ice floe against the odds.
The first North Pole 6 crew

It took some time to find the right ice floe. On April 15, 1956, a pilot named Maslennikov located an icy island about 14 kilometers long and 11 kilometers wide in sector 74 degrees 24 minutes north latitude and 177 degrees 10 minutes west longitude. The ice floe eventually became the home for the North Pole 6 station.

The station's crew spent the first few days in tents around an improvised airfield, and a main street was built by May 1. It featured six prefab houses and a tent with an outpatient clinic behind, as well as warehouses, research stations and other sites, and the antenna array. The mess room/galley building and the flagpole were located in the center. The Soviet flag was hoisted on the flagpole in an impressive setting.

The station's first crew spent 366 days, drifted 2,588 kilometers and collected much interesting data.

Save me, oh God

On April 19, 1957, the second station crew, headed by Geophysicist Valentin Driatsky, PhD (Geography), swung into action. Driatsky was placed in charge of the 13-person team in the run-up to International Geophysical Year.

The station's camp expanded little by little. A magnetic-equipment station and an ionosphere monitoring station, the first one on a drifting ice floe, were built outside the camp

Molten water appeared in the summer, and we had to drill ice holes. The hydrologists fared worse than everybody else because they had to cross deep puddles and rivulets, while walking toward their tents about 600 meters from the camp. Establishing, cleaning and maintaining the station's runway also required a lot of time and effort.

The endless polar day ended on August 24, and the North Pole 6 station's island started turning sharply. The meteorologists had trouble estimating the wind's direction, and the astronomer also faced new challenges.

The ice floe drifted near a coastal sandbank, while moving mostly due west and even southwest. It gradually accelerated and moved toward the De Long Islands. Everyone was worried because the icy island could hit the cliffs near Jeannette and Henrietta islands and crack apart.

The weather improved slightly on October 22, and the station's crew sighted Jeannette Island due southwest; its ice covered dome was clearly illuminated by the oblique rays of the setting Sun. The ice floe reached Henrietta Island on October 26.

Someone joked that these islands should be called Save Me, Oh God. His words were heard, and the station's crew was saved by some miracle

The wind's direction changed suddenly on November 1. The station's ice floe drifted 40 kilometers from Henrietta Island and later started moving west/northwest. Everyone cheered up, although the most difficult part of the polar night season lay ahead.

Clear weather with subzero temperatures prevailed throughout the long winter, with ambient temperatures sometimes dropping to minus 49 degrees Celsius in December.

We were getting anxious for the third station crew. Our island crisscrossed the Arctic in 12 months traveling 2,560 kilometers at an average speed of 7.2 kilometers per day. It drifted for 743 kilometers in a straight line, mostly heading northwest.


The third North Pole 6 crew

The third crew arrived on April 12, 1958 and spent 370 days on the ice floe.

At that time, the station's camp was about 1,400 meters from the runway, with ambient air temperatures at minus 35 degrees Celsius. We suffered some frostbite and constantly had to rub our faces.

The well-equipped camp allowed the new crew to start working without delay. Each research team performed just about the same amount of work as its predecessors. But some extra projects were implemented under the IGY program. All research teams had to conduct more frequent observations so everyone had to work until he was exhausted.

The ice floe drifted 2,537 kilometers in 12 months, averaging 6.8 kilometers per day.

The crew members followed the drift route with great interest. A map of the Arctic Ocean hung on the mess-room's wall, and the ice floe's exact coordinates were marked on it after each astronomical observation. Everyone was happy when the ice floe approached the North Pole, and the crew felt like disappointed children when the camp turned south

Drift speeds accelerated greatly in windy weather.

A strong wind started blowing on February 18, 1959, followed by a blizzard that lasted through the next day. It was impossible to calculate our exact coordinates during astronomical observations. A hydrological cable alone was used to determine the station's course and approximate speed. At this time, drift speeds were so high that the cable lay horizontally inside the ice-hole.

Wind speeds increased even more through February 20. It was well after midnight when I tried to get some sleep. But I was unable to relax because the diesel generator had stopped working. Something was wrong, and I had no choice but to get up and inspect the power unit located 25 meters from my tent. A high snow wall formed right in front of the generator room door. I tried to crawl over the drift but slid down. I walked around and entered the facility from another direction. Once inside, I saw mechanic Yevgeny Baskov and Vinogradov, the camp's duty officer, working hard on it.

"Everything's OK, we won't let everyone down," Baskov said. Indeed, the power unit worked without a hitch during the rest of the expedition.

Seasons come, seasons go

The Central Arctic is notorious for its abrupt seasonal weather changes. Although the region abounds in snow and ice all year, its appearance changes from season to season.

April does not mean an Arctic spring. The Sun that never sets is the only sign of spring. But temperatures hover around minus 30 degrees Celsius. You can see snowfields and icy hummocks everywhere. But the Sun eventually climbed higher, bringing warmer weather with it. The hummocks started dripping water and became covered with blue icicles. The cries of brave snow buntings, the harbinger of the polar summer season, disrupted the quiet atmosphere.

The snow melted away in July 1958, laying the ice floe bare. Its surface was covered with numerous cracks that looked like wrinkles, and icy bumps appeared in various places. The upper snow layer also started melting

Everyone worked hard for the beginning of summer.

The melted water formed an intricate system of lakes outside the camp, cutting us off from other ice floe sections, including the hydrological tents and the airfield. The runway became completely useless due to the rapidly melting ice. We had to drill a well near the airfield and chip away the ice hummocks and other rough surfaces. The most difficult thing was that the runway fell into disuse once again after we finished working on it. So, we had to start over again. We established three runways on various sections of the island all summer and received three aircraft. But Central Arctic weather always remains unstable in the summer; so it is hard to receive aircraft.


We have “visitors”

In the summer, off-duty personnel can walk around the ice floe or canoe through the many lakes on the island's lower sections. It's also possible to spot a few birds and animals.

A sandpiper, who somehow reached deep into the Arctic, can move anyone to tears. A pensive bird is standing on one leg, another is pressed tight against the other's warm belly, and it looks like the sandpiper is waiting for something. How did he get here from a mainland that is located almost 700 kilometers south?

It turned out that warm southerly winds had blown for the previous five days, bringing the sandpiper with it into the circumpolar area. The bird spent several days in the camp and then disappeared.

Winter buntings showed up from time to time from late April through July. Some of us even saw ducks. But seagulls outnumbered the other birds, especially during the spring flood season.

Polar bears made life pretty exciting. Although they roam any part of the Arctic Ocean, these mammals have their favorite spots, including Wrangel Island and the nearby ice fields in the eastern parts of the Polar Basin, as well as the western section of the Franz Josef Land archipelago. In the first 12 months of the North Pole 6 expedition, 42 bears visited the station when it was located off Wrangel Island. Three and five bears visited the station in the second and third years, respectively. And four showed up in the first six months of the fourth year. Five or six bears were sighted in the summer of 1958.

On August 30, the station's crew members were expecting a radio broadcast from Moscow when the camp's duty officer, Nikolai Filippov, rushed in and yelled that a polar bear was heading toward the mess-room

Everyone started joking that the animal was right on time for the radio broadcast from Moscow. Some had to go out and chase the bear away. No one was hurt.

Arctic foxes, which often follow polar bears can be seen in the most unexpected areas of the Polar Basin. For example, an entire litter of little Arctic foxes thrived inside the maze of our ice island's hummocks.

Underwater Mount Ararat

The station's crew conducted some geological projects that yielded substantial data on the origin of the Arctic Ocean's seabed and its structure. The experts took depth soundings throughout the drift, and this made it possible to update the Polar Basin's bathymetric map. The location of isobaths in the vicinity of Lomonosov Ridge was also updated, and new uplifted seabed sections west of the 80th meridian were marked on the map.

In the first 45 days, the station drifted in the Polar Basin's eastern section with researchers pinpointing 2,400–2,500-meter depths. Shallower depths began to be recorded from May 27, as the station approached Lomonosov Ridge.

The shallowest depth, 1,036 meters, was recorded at Lomonosov Ridge on June 14. Ocean depths began to increase rapidly from June 16 reaching 2,000 meters in 24 hours

After crossing Lomonosov Ridge, the island drifted in the western section of the sea. A smooth seabed was located at a depth of about 4,340 meters between the 140th and 80th meridians. Small uplifts, which didn't exceed 300 meters, were recorded in some places.

Researchers had to conduct additional measurements of extremely indented seabed sections west of the 80th meridian. On February 14, 1959, they discovered an unexpected rise and had to conduct measurements every six hours. Even more frequent soundings had to be taken on the next day. The team members in the mess joked that the ice floe was going to run aground or drop anchor. But the hydrologists weren't laughing; they just worked in their tent the whole time. Although a bathymetric map of that area shows a 4,000-meter isobath, the hydrologists recorded only 1,700-meter depths there. At 10 am February 15, they unexpectedly recorded a minimal depth of 728 meters. The underwater "peak" towered over 3,500 meters above the seabed and was nearly 30 kilometers wide along the drift course. Someone suggested calling it the underwater Mount Ararat.

After completing depth soundings, the hydrologists found that their tent was covered in snow including the door, and they were trapped. They tried unsuccessfully to dig through it several times but failed and had to call the camp for help. A rescue team arrived in short order. Mechanic Yevgeny Baskov and Valentin Stranin, the camp's physician, shoveled the snow from the tent entrance, went inside and warmly congratulated the hydrologists on discovering a new underwater peak.


The third crew leaves

The polar night ended, and the Sun appeared over the horizon for the first time in 151 days. Before that, it was pitch dark, with only the stars, the bright cold Moon and a rare and weak aurora borealis illuminating the North Pole station.

Everyone bustled with activity, writing reports, rummaging through snow-covered shelves with summer equipment and fuel depots. We also painstakingly inspected and smoothed out the runway. We are leaving this uninviting and cold territory with a feeling of accomplishment, and we know that we have served the Motherland well

On April 12 and April 13, 1959, our crew flew to the mainland aboard two aircraft, ending a 370-day tour of duty on the North Pole 6 drifting station and leaving the fourth crew behind.

The shortest drift

The ice floe covered 2,323 kilometers over a straight line during its three-year drift. In April 1959, it was near the Atlantic Ocean.

By that time, the fourth station crew was working under a shortened program of observations and did not have to make any aerologic observations. They worked for only five months on the ice-floe, that is, from April 12 through September 14. Nevertheless, they accomplished a lot.

The ice floe was headed toward the unruly Greenland Sea, covering up to six kilometers per day. In August, the ice island reached an area where drifting ice formations tended to crack apart without warning. The situation was becoming dangerous, and Moscow ordered the crew to abandon the station. On September 13, 1959, everyone abandoned the North Pole 6 station on the ice floe.

Before leaving for Mother Russia, the crew members walked around the camp once more, tidied up the houses and left messages for Soviet and foreign sailors, pilots and polar explorers (anyone who might have land on the ice floe) inside the mess-room:

"The Soviet North Pole 6 Arctic scientific research station was located on this ice floe from April 1956 through September 1959. It drifted 8,700 kilometers. Dear friends, please feel free to use anything you find on this ice floe. Please report any updated coordinates to the Arctic and Antarctic Institute in Leningrad. Thank you in advance"


Excerpts from the chapter "Drifting 8,700 Kilometers on an Ice Island" from the collection "Twelve Labors"
Hydrometeorological Publishing House, 1964