Introducing Mystery Class #8

Ice Station Barneo,
Arctic Ocean
89.18 N, 135.13 E*

(*Location is not permanent, because station is on drifting Arctic ice.)




Hi Students! My name is Jamie Morison.

Greetings from the North Pole Environmental Observatory
at Ice Station Barneo, in the Arctic Ocean!


Hi Students! My name is Jamie Morison and I am a physical oceanographer from the University of Washington in Seattle. At the time this Introduction was being written in late April 2010, however, I was not in Seattle. Did you figure out where I was? Any of you who discovered the North Pole as the location for Mystery Class #8 were close.

In April, I was in fact moving all around the North Pole, conducting scientific research for the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO).

But there was one location I used as my base camp, specifically the remote camp on the Arctic ice known as Ice Station Barneo.

This station is a private enterprise operated by a Russian company. Many people have referred to it as Camp "Borneo"; recently, however, it seems to be known more often as Camp "Barneo", which is said to be a Russian alphabetic rendering of the English word "Borneo".


Are you familiar with the word "logistics"? Originally a military term, logistics is the function of providing all the physical support necessary for a particular mission, including things like water, food, fuel, transportation, electrical power, tents, stoves, communications. Since April 2002, we have used Ice Station Barneo as a logistics base for our polar scientific research.

Barneo has actually been operating every year since 1994; however, it is not a permanent year-round facility. Instead, it only operates during the month of April (give or take a week or so).


Aerial photo
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2007 location of Barneo
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Aerial photo of Barneo

And Barneo is not a permanent structure or building--instead, it's a group of tents which you can see in the aerial photo above.

Up here, we're drifters
And, Barneo is never located in the same place from one day to the next. Here's why--it is located on the Arctic sea ice out in the middle of a great ocean, and that sea ice is in constant drifting motion. Therefore, the location of the camp drifts too as shown on this map of Barneo drift locations. Can you tell when Barneo was closest to the pole?

Drift map

Green line: Barneo's movement March 15-April 1, 2008
Yellow line: Barneo's movement April 1-15, 2008

If you and your tent at Barneo are right at the North Pole today, by the next day your latitude/longitude location may be 10 nautical miles away even if you have not actually moved your tent. All that being said, Barneo is still the closest thing to an occupied North Pole station that there is.


What is Life Like at Barneo?

Life at Barneo is not long on creature-comforts. When it is -35°C (do you know what temp that is in °F?) outside with a wind, warm inside space is at a premium. So the emphasis is on going light, getting the projects done as quickly as possible, and getting out before the warming weather and approaching summer fog make the runway too hard to maintain.

What do you I like and not like at Barneo?
When I am at Barneo, there are things I like and things I don't like. On one hand, I love the beauty of the environment, the challenge of succeeding in a complex technical and logistical endeavor, and the camaraderie of a good team of people. On the other hand, I don't like the lack of sleep.

What do we eat at Barneo?
When we are at Camp Barneo, the camp operators do their best to keep us safe, warm, well-fed, and in good spirits. For food, I am often so busy that eating for me is a little bit of a catch as catch can thing. But the operators at the Barneo do serve 3 regular meals a day. It is sort of Russian institutional food I guess. Breakfast always includes porridge, plus usually bread and cold cuts. Occasionally there might be eggs, bacon or sausage. Lunch and dinner tend to be the same. Soup of some kind or borscht which is cabbage soup. Sometimes we will also have some sort of meat and starch. Not too much in the vegetable department, except things like pickled tomatoes.

Mess hall
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Mess hall

Food is a little different thing when I leave Barneo and go out into the Arctic on the ice to install, monitor and extract data from the remote scientific instruments we use. When we go out for this, we go to remote mooring and buoy "camps". Out there, we tend to have camping type food we bring ourselves. The same is true for food on flights we go on when we are there to conduct hydro surveys, but we also sometimes have bread and cold cuts provided as box lunches by Barneo.

Occasionally get a chance to eat or relax with the Russian helicopter crew. Then the food is more memorable. A custom from their part of Siberia (Norilske on the Yenesey River) is a shot of vodka followed by a slice of frozen raw fish dipped in a sauce. It is very good. Our Russian friends are very good at making an impromptu party - picnic by slicing up cold meats and vegetables (pickled in this case), a little bread and vodka. Very conducive to toasts and story telling.

What do people do for fun at Barneo?
Someone asked me "what do people do for fun at Barneo?" Well, as my father says, there is no fun like work. Generally there is no time for recreational activities. We have trouble getting enough time to finish our scientific work, and there is always more that we could do. However, we try to relax a little at meal times and for brief nightcaps before going to sleep. The occasional small party with our hosts does lighten things up a great deal.

How do we stay in touch?
When we are at Barneo, we don't have any problems staying in touch back home. NPEO is technology intensive. Standard elements are laptop computers, Iridium phones and digital cameras. Plus, the equipment we deploy and use to interrogate our scientific instruments is all high technology.

Visit the North Pole?
Although scientists like me and my colleagues come and support this camp, Barneo also gets a large amount of financial support from other visitors who come here for what is called "adventure tourism". It is expensive, but if someone wishes to travel to the North Pole, they are welcome to come to Barneo--and many do indeed come each year.


Warm Weather Causes Big Problems at Barneo

This year, warming weather made things quite challenging at Camp Barneo. During the evening of Apr 10/early morning of Apr 11 a large "lead" opened up across the ice runway and through the middle of camp. A "lead" is a crack in the ice that opens wide enough to cause trouble if you are out there on the sea ice, say anywhere wider than one can safely jump, conservatively. Leads render runways unusable and split camps into separate units, and that's what happened this year.

The field staff at Barneo had to move most of the camp structures (tents) such as the galley and berthing tents across the lead, because the lead split the camp up into separate units, and they had to re- consolidate the camp in one place.

Ice breakup

Moving the camp
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Ice breakup! Watch your step.
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Moving the ice camp

In a breakup, the runway is usually the first thing you lose because runways are typically built on thinner ice, 1 meter or even less (other ice nearby can be 3 meters thick). This year, the runway was 1.8 km in length but it became unusable when these leads appeared. The field staff at Barneo marked out a new runway and took several passes on it with a bulldozer to groom it.


Getting to Barneo and Getting Around the Arctic

To get to Barneo, we have flown there from Resolute and Alert in northern Canada, and more recently we have flown there from Longyearbyen, a Norwegian community in Svalbard (Spitzbergen), the island group north of Norway. Other flights to Barneo fly from Russia, specifically from Khatanga.

One of the planes that flys to Barneo is a Russian aircraft known as an Antonov An-74 STOL jet. The STOL stands for "Short-Take-Off-and-Landing". Once the planes reach Barneo, there is a smooth runway which the operators have cut on the ice.


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Mi-8 Helicopters

To travel around the Arctic once we are at Barneo, we usually do it in a Russian Mi-8 helicopter. GPS allows the helicopter to deliver travelers right to the spot of the exact North Pole, or locations around the pole. Helicopters are used for this because planes need a smooth piece of ice long enough to serve as a runway. You can't count on finding one right at the Pole. But some skiplanes as large as a Twin Otter do land pretty close to the Pole.

With Barneo in place for the month of April, increasingly exotic means of travel have been used to get the last degree to the Pole. Cross-country skiing is common, although not exactly routine. Dog teams, ultra-light and antique airplanes, and hot air balloons have been tried too.


Scientific Research at the North Pole

I have traveled to the Arctic nearly every year since 1974 to conduct scientific research for a long series of exciting projects. I am a physical oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle. Since about 1990 in particular, the Arctic has been a focus of the world's concern about global climate change, and understanding that has been a principle goal of our research.

Since spring 2000, I have been a principal investigator of the North Pole Environmental Observatory. This "Observatory" is not an actual building, instead it is an international research team supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants OPP–9910305, OPP–0352754, and ARC-0856330. Our group of scientists has been conducting expeditions each April to the North Pole to take the pulse of the Arctic Ocean and learn how the world's northernmost sea helps regulate global climate.

The team establishes a group of unmanned scientific platforms to record data throughout the remainder of the year on everything from the salinity of the water to the thickness and temperature of the ice cover. For long-term observations, an automated station does the work of an occupied camp, but at far less cost.The area around the North Pole is far from any landmass or observing stations. Even with the use of submarines and icebreakers it is difficult to obtain long-term measurements at the Pole.

The Observatory offers opportunities for three types of measurements:

  1. Drifting data buoys reporting via satellite provide coverage over a wide geographic area by following the drift of the ice pack.

  2. Oceanographic moorings anchored to the ocean floor recording internally measure long-term time series at a single position beneath the ice.

  3. Aerial surveys of hydrographic casts profiling ocean parameters from the surface become possible using the light aircraft used in the April mooring and buoy deployments.

One of kinds of drifting buoys are the NPEO WebCams, which take still color photographs of the ice, snow, and weather conditions about the buoy array and transmit them over the satellite.

Visit the North Pole Without Getting Cold
Visit the region near the North Pole with a mouse click without getting cold, at least until the WebCam buoy is crushed in a pressure ridge, topples due to summer melt, or disappears into autumn darkness.
Give it a try now!

Watch this Web Cam video of what a week can look like here:

Click to Play Video

Time lapse movie

For the Russians who run the station, it is a money-making proposition. But the existence of Barneo's runway for that short month each year gives scientific projects like the North Pole Environmental Observatory a useful logistics advantage. And if you want to show up with a fat checkbook and a pair of skis, Barneo is at your service.

I've enjoyed being a secret Mystery Class. I hope you had fun meeting me and learning about the Arctic. If you have any questions, you can write to me.