A top race to the bottom: climate, politics compete for bragging rights during disastrous North Pole season


It appears the biggest competition in the most disastrous North Pole season in modern history will be whether a political or climactic meltdown will most evaporate the hopes of scores hoping to reach the top of the world.

The Barneo ice camp at 89 degrees latitude north finally opened to expeditions this week – nearly two weeks later than hoped – after several attempts to build a stable ice runway failed due to cracks in ice floes and other problems. But many of the adventurers expecting to depart were told shortly afterward most of the passenger and cargo flights had been put on hold due to new Norwegian regulations for flights between Longyearbyen and Bareno – setting off a barrage of infuriated social media and blog posts from various expeditions seeing their odds of success melting away.


Participants in this year’s North Pole Marathon get an update about conditions at the Barneo ice camp during a briefing this week at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel. Photo by Piotr Suchenia

It sounds like a very bad joke – of course the flights have been rescheduled due to delays caused by Arctic conditions!!” a post at the official North Pole Marathon Facebook page notes. “Rescheduling happens every year in polar regions, without an issue, probably anywhere in the world when weather causes delays. We sincerely hope this idiocy will be resolved quickly in the morning so there is no interruption to the race…Marathon Director Richard Donovan has already contacted the legal department of Norway’s civil aviation authority in a robust overnight letter and is taking further actions in the morning.”

The regulations enacted last year require passenger lists and cargo lists for flights to and from Svalbard to be submitted at least 48 hours prior to the planned flight, according to Nina Vindvik, legal director of Norway’s Civil Aviation Authority.

“The requirement to send passenger lists is for safety reasons so that The Governor of Svalbard can be able to monitor who is actually on Svalbard at any given time,” she wrote in an e-mail.

The denial of previously scheduled flights – among the most recent in a serious of high-profile political disputes dating back to last year – is just element causing this year’s expedition season to spin out of control for many. Another major factor is a record low level of Arctic sea ice during the past winter – with ice not just shrinking, but thinner, causing unprecedented struggles in building the ice runway.

The marathon, originally scheduled for April 9 with a record 56 participants, is among the groups facing the most chaotic circumstances. After days of delays, half of the runners arrived at Barneo at about 3 a.m. Thursday and race officials said they were marking the course “so that the race can start in another eight hours or so.” But a Facebook update posted six hours later said another problem is again delaying the race indefinitely.

“Significant cross winds caused a crack to develop in the runway and, with the second planeload of competitors just fifteen minutes from landing, they were ordered back to Norway,” the post notes. “Efforts are being made to remedy the situation and we’ll update you with a revised schedule as soon as possible. The adventure continues.”

In addition to the problems funding a stable runway site, the lack of ice means conditions will be more treacherous than usual when expeditions are underway. The combination of human and natural events has a few adventurers wondering if this might be the final season for going to the North Pole via Svalbard, due to both human and natural factors.

In addition to the logistical challenges the lack of ice presents, the cost and complications of establishing and operating the camp are rising, said Ed Suttie, 48, a resident of St. Albans, England, participating in one of the first trips to depart this year. That might motivate Russia, whose workers have built and staffed the Barneo ice camp during the past 15 years, to explore other expedition options for reaching the Pole.

“That’s just my speculation, but I am a glaciologist,” he said.

Suttie and others in the expedition led by guide Eric Philips were hoping to complete a “last two degrees” trip covering more than 200 kilometers to the North Pole. But the lengthy delay, combined with numerous stretches of open water, forced participants to scale back their ambitions to a 120-kilometer trip.

“One of the options is we could have defaulted until next year, but it is going to be better next year?” Suttie said. “I doubt it.”