Nothing goes easily when you plan an airstrip in the middle of a frozen ocean. After all, an ocean is an ocean, and in motion, and the notion that no commotion effects these waters is incorrect. This is especially true within a year like this one, when there has been a regular import of southerly winds and the transpolar drift has constantly been shoved backwards.
I’m sure there will be some discussion about whether the ice is weaker this year, with the southerly winds blamed for melting and contributing to the “Death Spiral” of arctic sea-ice, but the so-called “mild” winter had temperatures well below the freezing point of salt water, except for a period of a few hours just after Christmas when a tongue of Atlantic air made it it to the Pole and remained above freezing just long enough to make headlines, as it swiftly cooled in the sunless landscape. Within hours it had cooled back below zero, (Celsius), and within a day the same buoy that had been reporting the thaw was reporting ten below, and soon was reporting thirty below.
In fact, because the ice often wasn’t exported south, it was crunched and tortured and piled up in pressure ridges.
The “thickness” maps show the Atlantic-side ice is thicker in a few places, but generally thinner, especially towards Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, even as it is thicker towards East Siberia. (To compare it can be helpful to open each map below to a new tab, and then click back and forth.) 2015 is to the right, and 2016 to the left.
The problem the Russians seem to be up against is not so much that the ice is thinner as it is that the ice is not smooth. They need to find an area where the ice hasn’t been bashed and smashed, and yet is thick enough to land a jet upon. The first few pans they investigated by helicopter had problems. Finally they found one which seemed satisfactory, more than ninety km from the Pole, and airlifted in bulldozers to start removing snow and smoothing the ice.
The aircraft that the airstrip is being prepared for is an An-74, which can be swiftly shifted from carrying passengers to carrying freight, and can be adapted to landing on sea-ice. They are in high demand, and the usual company the Barneo Base got its aircraft from wasn’t willing to accept a certain degree of uncertainty, involving whether there would even be a base this year, and had leased its An-74 elsewhere. Therefore some six months ago the Barneo team turned to “Uktus” to supply the aircraft, but Uktus were unable to make the modifications needed, and, only days ago, confessed they couldn’t supply the An-74. Bleep! Gloom decended. Where are you going to find one of these on short notice?
After frantic phone-calls an aircraft was located. As I understand it the pride of Russia was evoked, and someone had a contract cancelled so the air-craft’s duties could be shifted to the Pole. The jet has made it up to Svalbard, and efficiently and swiftly cargo and people are being readied for the trip.
It will be nice to get cargo up there, as the accommodations brought up by helicopter for the men preparing the runway are not exactly luxurious, and they have been working in temperatures between twenty and thirty-five below.
Then,yesterday, there came this somewhat ominous report, (translated.)
“Morning Barneo reported that the runway went crack. The meeting discussed the situation with the crew, and decided to fill small cracks and change the direction of the band a bit. This will require additional time.
Prediction is no do not do.”
Nothing is ever easy, when dealing with the arctic. I’ll update this post as reports become available, but as we wait we might as well check the weather.
Just to make life more interesting for the fellows up there, a little home-grown storm developed. The North Pole sunrise had been blessed by the hush of dawn, but then the winds picked up. Most recently it looks like the low is filling and fading southeast into Siberia.
The GFS computer model suggests weak high pressure will build over the area. In 72 hours the map (created by Dr. Ryan Maue at the Weatherbell site), may look like this, which suggests reasonably quiet conditions, for the Pole.
APRIL 3 UPDATE –First jet lands at Pole–
This year’s base was located, this morning, 57.91 miles from the Pole, towards Russia, at N 89.16 N, and 75.48 E. Air temperatures were a balmy -27 degrees Celsius.
The ice the base is on appears to be drifting slowly southwest towards Svalbard. (In the map below, where arrows move from a blue area to an orange area there is the possibility of leads opening, and where the arrows move from orange to blue there is the possibility of pressure ridges forming.)
The ice tends to open leads along weaknesses where leads have opened before. To build an airstrip takes a certain amount of discernment, for one doesn’t want to pick a floe of ice that will split into two foes. Two is not better than one, in this case, because a jet cannot take off from half an air strip.
The problem is that, even when a floe looks sturdy, drifting snows can hide the old cracks. Arctic bases have faced cracks in airstrips and even right under buildings, in the past, (though buildings often are erected on slightly thicker and rougher “multi-year ice”, which tends to be more stable, though less smooth.) All in all there is always an element of danger involved.
NORTH POLE 16 “Race Against Time” expedition is underway.
This is the only team of adventurers I can find this year, attempting sea-ice crossings. They are attempting to ski from the Barneo Base to Canada. It seems they are hindered by a late start and the fact the base is over fifty miles further from Canada than usual.
The members are Paul Vicary, Mark Langridge, and Mark Wood. It was Mark Wood who early this morning tweeted:
North Pole 16 has had the green light – were off!
I tend to zip my lip, concerning the amount of hype and bull they need to endure, finding sponsors, and instead to focus on the actual adventure, which involves grit and stamina difficult to imagine. Also I pray a bit, for there is plenty of danger involved.
Hopefully they will be able to send some pictures via satellite phone. The pictures sent by prior adventurers have given us a better idea of arctic conditions than the cameras-on-buoys, in the past.
I disagree with much of their hype, but once men are out on the ice hype ceases to matter and hype cannot help, and out of respect I’ll promote their “cause” this one time:
The ice will get thicker as they approach Canada, but also more jumbled and difficult to cross. I’m unsure what they expect to do when they reach land, as they are still hundreds of miles from anywhere. Perhaps a pilot will pick them up, though no pilots were flying last year, which is why there were no adventurers last year.