Will Iconic North Pole Station Barneo Ever Open Again?

If you’re planning to head to the North Pole next year, you may want to reconsider.

That’s because Barneo, the previously Russian-owned substation for almost all North Pole expedition activity, has probably ceased to exist.

The base has barely been operable for the past several years, partly from COVID, largely because of the outsized rapidity of climate change in the Arctic. And now, Russia’s rocky political landscape further obstructs the base’s viability.

Francesco Annibali, Barneo’s CEO, told The Atlantic that sanctions against Russia, plus other ripple effects from the war in Ukraine, prevented Barneo from materializing this season and likely into the future.

A floating camp

And I do mean “materializing.” A crew establishes the base on floating ice in the Arctic Ocean. On average, it exists for just three weeks a year. First, airplane crews must identify a suitable ice floe from the air. Once that’s done, pilots fly in a Soviet-era military cargo plane built for arctic weather. Crews then lower 50 tons of equipment, including two hybrid tractor-bulldozers, onto the moving ice.

An Antonov An-74 RA-74020 takes off at Barneo ice camp in 2013. Photo: Shutterstock


Finally, a 20-member logistics team spends five days on the ice constructing an airplane runway, a small tent city, and a kitchen.

That all happens on a time-sensitive basis. The approximately three-week window opens only in April when the ice is still strong enough to float the whole operation, but the 24-hour polar darkness and bitter cold of March have lifted.

The ephemeral but long-lived camp belonged to Russians until 2018 when Swiss pharmaceutical billionaire Frederik Paulsen purchased it. That year, Barneo lasted for just 12 days before the ice cracked and it shut down. Since then, it has never existed. And that’s partly due to Russia’s violence against Ukraine.

Annibali canceled the season this past spring due to a ban on Russian planes in Norwegian airspace (which Barneo is near) that started days after the war broke out. But flight issues are not new in Barneo. In 2019, Ukrainian pilots that Russian arbiters hired to fly clients to the base either refused to work with the Russians or were banned from doing so.

Whether due to Russia’s hostility toward its neighbors or not, lack of cooperation between operative agents has hounded Barneo for years.

Contentious history

An incident that one ExplorersWeb correspondent said stemmed from Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea prevented the base from existing in 2019. An AN-74 — a Ukrainian plane — was the only aircraft that could land on the ice runway. Even though Barneo was no longer an official Russian territory by then, it proved “impossible” to land the plane at the “quasi-Russian” station, Galya Morrell wrote.

International flags at Barneo. The show of unity contradicts the sometimes fraught international relations that dictate the camp’s existence. Photo: Shutterstock


Morrell has lived and worked in the Arctic for over 30 years. She told ExplorersWeb that the “official version” of the story goes like this: that the plane was in the air, on its way to Barneo in the hands of a Ukrainian crew. But in flight, the pilots learned that officials had just revoked their license to fly at the required latitude.

“The essence of the conflict was that Russia did not want to see the Ukrainian aircraft in its zone of interest near the Pole,” Morrell explained. “But Russia blamed the State Administration of Civil Aviation of Ukraine.”

Attempts to find a backup plane failed, and the season resulted in an abort.

A grim future?

Considering it all, how can Barneo continue to exist?

Morrell asserted that disregarding climate change, the key action that can keep the base viable is if its management isolates itself from Russian influence.

“Barneo as an international camp should sever its connections with Putin’s Russia,” Morrell wrote, adding, “since 2019, there were still many [connections], even after the operations were sold to Paulsen.”

Four months remain until the 2023 Barneo season. The last update to Norway’s airspace ban on Russia, posted on Dec. 7, indicates it’s still active.

Whether planet Earth can sustain Arctic human habitation in the form of the base is not worth speculating about. Will we keep ourselves from doing it? It looks like that depends on what happens in the — perhaps even dicier — climate of international relations.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.