Scientists’ Dreams of Reaching the North Pole This Year Have Melted Away

Thank climate change and geopolitical tensions.

Eric Chretien/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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This story was originally published by Slate and Future Tense, which is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. It is shared here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

Getting to the North Pole is not straightforward. While early explorers made the trek from northern Canada and Siberia over hundreds of miles of treacherous ice, many modern adventurers choose to complete a “last degree” expedition, traveling from 89 degrees north to the true geographic pole during a brief window in the spring.* However, for the first time since 2002, no one’s making the trek this year, thanks to a combination of geopolitical tension and too-warm weather.

To understand why, first bear with me through some expedition logistics. Most aspiring North Pole expeditions—including both tourists and researchers—begin their journey in Longyearbyen, a small town on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard known for its global seed vault and for rumors that it outlaws dying. (In truth, there’s no rule against death there; it’s just recommended you do it elsewhere.) At 78 degrees north, it’s the world’s northernmost settlement, and it offers adventurers a base camp to stock up on gear, take a good hot shower, and go out for burgers and beers before making a bid for the pole.

The next step on the way to the pole is Barneo, a pop-up camp built every year as a depot for expedition hopefuls. (The name is meant to be a play on its contrast to the tropical island of Borneo.) Every year since 2002, a group of Russians have taken helicopters to search among the fragmented ice for a hearty ice floe close to 89 degrees north and then parachuted down to set up camp. Late March and April is traditionally the season for these expeditions; there’s enough sunlight for adventurers to trek, the temperatures are somewhat bearable, and the ice is still somewhat intact (though increasingly less so).

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