NPEO 2011

On the sea ice floating over (or near) Earth’s geographical North Pole, a team of scientists led by Jamie Morison (U Washington) is winding up springtime activities for the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO), sampling activities that have been carried out each April for over a decade now, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Science teams collect critical baseline information about the region, information that is used by many studying global weather and ocean circulation patterns, sea-ice dynamics, and the northern ocean.

Each year, scientists spend several weeks deploying scientific instruments that will monitor conditions for the following year and collecting information from data loggers on instruments that have been gathering data since last spring.  For the former, teams deploy buoys affixed to drifting sea ice, and deploy instruments that will collect information as they sink slowly through the water column. For the latter, researchers fly out to and land on the sea ice near individual instruments previously deployed; they “ping” the instruments—that is, they send a radio signal that commands the instrument to release its data payload—to retrieve atmospheric, weather, sea-ice and upper ocean water column information.

Because there is no land at the North Pole—just sea-ice drifting at the whim of currents and storms--NPEO logistics are complex. Each year, the Russians build a camp called Barneo on a swath of sea ice near the pole, and the research teams stage instrument deployments and data recovery missions from there. While Barneo is the forward logistics hub, people and gear queue at Longyearbyen on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago—a scenic clump of islands about 700 miles from the pole—waiting for their turn to advance to the Russian camp Barneo. PFS project manager Tom Quinn positions at Svalbard to assist the researchers as they prepare to fly to and from Barneo; between weather delays and unexpected developments at the ice camp itself, he is busy the entire time planning contingencies, assisting researchers, and moving cargo and passengers to and from the airport.

Ice Station Barneo is a huge springtime draw for celebrities, adventurers and tourists drawn to the North Pole—it’s a human interest kaleidoscope, really—so NPEO researchers rub elbows with all sorts.  Earlier this month, Prince Harry (best man at next week’s royal wedding) lingered a day or so extra at Barneo when the ice runway developed a crack and was decertified for a day or so (The Prince, shown below with camp mascot, Nanook, a Russian Samoyed pup, visited the ice camp with veterans treking to the pole for the charity "Walking with the Wounded," which raises money for veteran's causes.) Tom Quinn sat across from Naomi Campbell last week. The supermodel was en route to Barneo for a skiing adventure to the North Pole and was, contrary to her public reputation, polite and friendly.

NPEO work has gone very well this year, with small hiccups caused by weather. Most groups have finished their buoy deployments and data recovery and have headed home by now. Tom Quinn remains in Svalbard for a few more days to help sweep up and turn the lights off. He’ll next focus on the Switchyard Project (Schlosser, Columbia U, PI), another major oceanographic study of the area north of Ellesmere Island, Canada, and Greenland, where water flows south out of the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific via Fram and Nares straits. Switchyard scientists next week will assemble in Scotia, New York, home of the Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing, and fly north to Alert, Canada, on Ellesmere Island, where they’ll base for Switchyard sampling activities.—Kip Rithner