One of the annual rites of spring in the world of outdoor adventure and exploration is the opening of the Barneo Ice Camp. Each year, this temporary base is constructed on an ice flow located in the Arctic Ocean somewhere around the 88ºN latitude mark. For several weeks it serves as a launching point for anyone considering a polar expedition into the high arctic, including last-degree skiers going to the North Pole, researchers studying the impact of climate change, and hardy runners looking to take part in the North Pole Marathon. But this year, tensions between Russia and the Ukraine are causing some issues, which are forcing some visitors to find alternate means of reaching the remote outpost.
Construction on the 2019 Barneo Ice Camp began back in late March when skydivers parachuted out onto an ice flow that was deemed large enough to support the base. From there, they went to work setting up camp and constructing a blue ice runway that would allow large aircraft to land on the floating platform. Once that runway was completed, it cleared the way for large Ilyushin Il-76 jets to begin shuttle supplies and personnel to Barneo. Now, the staff there are ready to welcome guests, but things aren’t going completely according to plan.
Exactly what is fueling the current tensions between Russia and the Ukraine isn’t exactly clear. The two have been at loggerheads over a number of issues in recent years, culminating with Russian naval vessels firing on Ukrainian ships last fall and taking several prisoners. Now, Russian authorities are refusing to allow a Ukrainian aircraft to land at Barneo, which technically falls inside the Arctic, but close to the Russian side of the ice.
Normally, the flight would depart from the Ukraine and head to Norway, where it would refuel and pick up passengers in Longyearbyen before proceeding on to Barneo. Now, that flight is grounded, stranding more than 200 would-be arctic adventurers, who are quickly seeing their window of opportunity for a visit to the Arctic closing. There is a chance that a Russian chartered aircraft could pick them up next week and ferry them on to Barneo, but that could give some of the individuals very limited time to complete their missions. The Ice Camp is scheduled to shut down for the season on April 26, which means last-degree skiers in particular wouldn’t have enough time to complete their journey.
At this point, it looks like the political tensions between Russia and the Ukraine won’t be sorted out in time. That means only an alternate form of transport will salvage any part of the season. But seeing how Barneo isn’t even completely up to speed and fully functioning yet, even that seems like a long-shot. The site needs more fuel, tents, food, and other supplies in order to be ready for visitors. Most of that stuff is sitting in Longyearbyen waiting for pick-up.
Hopefully something can be worked out in the next day or two, or the 2019 Arctic season is going to be a very short one.
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