Reaching the North Pole still is a challenge due to its location in the middle of the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. To get there, many travelers are using the Russian Camp Barneo, a drift station that has been set up annually for 15 years. Usually, passengers and materials would be flown in via Longyearbyen to the camp. This season, the Russian crew experienced a lot of troubles, both in terms of ice as well as politically. Now the camp organizers decided to change the flight itinerary and plan to use Franz-Josef-Land in the future.

The drift ice station Camp Barneo has been set up for the last 15 years. It served as a gateway for flights and expeditions to the North Pole and lately also as a training camp for Russian military personnel, officially to train Search & Rescue operations in the high Arctic. Picture: Michael Wenger
The drift ice station Camp Barneo has been set up for the last 15 years. It served as a gateway for flights and expeditions to the North Pole and lately also as a training camp for Russian military personnel, officially to train Search & Rescue operations in the high Arctic. Picture: Michael Wenger

This season has been very difficult for the camp organizers from the start. Unusual high temperatures around the central Arctic Ocean, unusual ocean currents, and heavily fractured ice floes made it very difficult to find a suitable spot for setting up the camp. On March 25, they finally found a suitable floe after all. However, building the ice airdrome caused some serious problems as the ice moved strongly and cracks appeared in the runway several times. In the end, the fifth runway was constructed further away from the camp and held more or less until the end of the four weeks season.

Each year the technical crew constructs a runway on the ice by moving tons of snow and flattening the ice floe. This season, several runways and repairs were necessary due to the difficult ice conditions. Picture: Michael Wenger
Each year the technical crew constructs a runway on the ice by moving tons of snow and flattening the ice floe. This season, several runways and repairs were necessary due to the difficult ice conditions. Picture: Michael Wenger

As if this had not been enough difficulties, technical issues also hindered a smooth operation of the camp. These included finding a suitable trailer to transport an additional tractor for the construction work from Moscow to Murmansk. Also, in the beginning the organizers had problems getting the special plane required to make the flights from Longyearbyen and Murmansk to the camp. The only suitable airplane is an Antonov AN-74 which is specially designed to land on ice. However, the plane became available only after the landing site had been finished (runway number 1 at that time) and only shortly before planned operations took place.

Landing on the ice requires a special plane and the only one available is the Antonov AN-74, specifically designed for Polar Regions. It is used to transport both passengers as well as cargo. Picture: Michael Wenger
Landing on the ice requires a special plane and the only one available is the Antonov AN-74, specifically designed for Polar Regions. It is used to transport both passengers as well as cargo. Picture: Michael Wenger

The icing on the cake came on April 7 when Norwegian aviation authorities revoked flight permission and requested a detailed passenger and cargo list from the organizers. According to officials from the camp’s Facebook page, this change of transportation rules were invoked after a report by the news portal “The Independent Barents Observer” (IBO) which had informed about Russian military personnel being transported to Longyearbyen and onwards to the camp by the Russian Geographical Society Expedition Center, the organizer of the camp. Later, the “Barents Observer” (another news portal) had described how Chechen Special Forces had been taking part in North Pole military exercises and how they had used the airport of Longyearbyen to reach Camp Barneo. According to the IBO, this posed “a threat to Norwegian national security” and an eventual break of the Svalbard Treaty. However, the circumstances of the whole story are not entirely clear. Fact is that several countries had conducted parachute jumps over and around the camp in the last 3 years in order to train personnel to operate under extreme conditions. According to Russian officials, these trainings serve to improve Search & Rescue operation services.

Even though Camp Barneo is used by tourists for their trips to the North Pole, the camp itself still has multiple purposes like science as well as strategic values for many countries closely associated with Russia. Picture: Michael Wenger
Even though Camp Barneo is used by tourists for their trips to the North Pole, the camp itself still has multiple purposes like science as well as strategic values for many countries closely associated with Russia. Picture: Michael Wenger

Camp officials had received flight permissions again soon after the permission had been revoked and they continued with flight operations to the camp from Longyearbyen. As the ice has become less and less stable, the camp will be closed and materials will be transported back to Russia. On their official Facebook page, the organizers state that due the difficulties encountered, especially the more rigorous transportation rules by the Norwegian aviation authorities, flights to and from the camp will be conducted from the Nagurskaya military airfield on Franz-Josef-Land in the future. The airfield and the entire station on Alexandra Island is currently being upgraded by Russian authorities. The airfield itself is situated above 80° N, i.e. higher north than Longyearbyen. Norwegian officials say that they had no contact with their Russian colleagues concerning this question. For future travelers trying to reach the North Pole via air, it will remain to be seen which route has to be taken.

The North Pole will remain on many people’s bucket lists. Whether to fly in via Russia or Svalbard remains to be seen. Picture: Michael Wenger
The North Pole will remain on many people’s bucket lists. Whether to fly in via Russia or Svalbard remains to be seen. Picture: Michael Wenger

Source: Barneo Facebook Page, The Independent Barents Observer