North Pole 2011: Trouble At Barneo

So just how bad is it in the Arctic this season? We already knew that all the explorers traveling to the North Pole from the Canadian side of the ice called off their expeditions due to the extremely bad weather, but it seemed that for the most part it would be business as usual at the Barneo Ice Station. That doesn’t seem to be the case however, as ExWeb is reporting that the runway at the temporary base has cracked and broken under the weight of a landing plane.

As I reported earlier this week, the Barneo station finally opened for business on Monday following some weather delays. The base is built each spring to facilitate travel to the North Pole, and in order for it to be constructed, a suitable ice flow needs to be located, and then a team of paratroopers are dropped onto that flow to begin construction. That includes creating a smooth runway for the planes to land on. Yesterday that runway suffered damage when an Antanov-74 plane came in for landing, cracking the ice, and making it completely unsafe to land upon. In fact, the ice broke up as the plane was touching down, forcing it to lift off and return to Longyearbyen.

Apparently the crack is so large that it extends through the entire base and as a result, the runway was immediately shut down. Another in-bound plane was diverted back to Spitsbergen and the Mi-8 Hind helicopters were dispatched to search for another slab of ice to serve as the landing strip. That search is being hampered by weather at the moment however, as high winds and snow have hit the area.

We’re told that everyone in the camp is safe and that there is plenty of food and fuel to keep everyone warm and happy. But there are a number of explorers and scientists who are now waiting for an opportunity to get out on the ice. It could be a considerable amount of time before a new runway is ready, and time is a commodity that is in short supply this time of year in the high arctic.

Meanwhile, Prince Harry was suppose to be picked up from the ice today and returned to the U.K. He is now stranded there as well while they figure out the best way to get supplies and people in and out of the region. Current estimates say it could be 36 hours to two days before any kind of resolution can be had.

So, how scary would it be to come in for a landing on the ice runway, only to see, hear, and feel it break-up underneath your plane? That has to be one of the most terrifying things that you could experience. It also highlights once again how much the Arctic is changing. Exploration in this part of the world is going to be very different in the years ahead, that much is certain.

Kraig Becker