Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cold War Politics at the North Pole

If you read this blog regularly, you probably saw my coverage of the North Pole exploration season this past spring. While there were no full-distance expeditions to the North Pole from either the Canadian or Russian side of the ice as there has been in years past, there was still plenty of drama to be had. That's because Norway and Russian got into a bit of a showdown over who gets access to the Arctic. The pissing match between those two countries turned into a bit of a political and logistical nightmare that resulted in some polar explorers, adventurers, and researchers being left in the lurch while attempting to travel to and from the Arctic this spring. And the fallout from this exchange could have long-lasting repercussions for the future.

I reported several times on the fact that flights to the Barneo Ice Camp – the temporary base built at 89ÂșN each year – were delayed coming out of Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, Norway because of security issues. Those flights are for massive Russian supply planes, which are used to shuttle gear and personnel too and from the Arctic. The aircraft typically fly from Russia to Norway, where they pick up passengers and supplies before proceeding on to Barneo. But this year, this procedure caused a stir when the transport planes carried a team of Chechen soldier who were on their way to the Arctic to conduct training exercises. Norwegian officials say that the Russians didn't inform them that these commandos would passing through their country, and in retaliation they revoked all of the flight permits, and changed the procedure for how the Russian jets come and go.

All of this was further compounded by the fact that the Barneo station had one of its most challenging years ever. Each year, a team of Russian engineers parachutes out onto the ice to build a temporary base that includes a 4000-foot (1220 meter) runway. That camp is then used to facilitate travel throughout the Arctic for a month or so. But this year, the landing strip had all kinds of issues, having to be rebuilt on multiple occasions and even forcing the relocation of the base at one point.

As you can imagine, all of this led to a tumultuous season at the North Pole this year, and will dramatically impact operations moving forward. Just exactly what happened, and how it will change travel in the Arctic in the future, is detailed in this article from Outside magazine. The story goes to great lengths to lay out the facts of what happened and the dispute that it has created between the Russians and the Norwegians. If you followed the events as they unfolded this past spring, or know the logistics of Arctic travel, you'll find it to be a good read.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out in the future. At the end of the Arctic season, the team that operates Barneo said that they would shift their logistical base back to Russia and travel through Franz Josef Land starting next year. That will work of course, but it means more hassle for the people coming and going from Barneo. Whether or not that has a real impact on travel at the top of the world remains to be seen.

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