AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Russians set sail on Arctic ice station, 40th in nation's history

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
Fikret Onal / Flickr photo

Russia has just launched a drifting ice station in the Arctic with 16 people on board. The researchers will be carrying out all sorts of studies as they drift through the Arctic, working in oceanography, meteorology and glaciology.

The flag was raised on North Pole-40 (NP-40), aptly (and a bit oddly) named "Russia," at 85°12′ N, 142°50′ W, far north of eastern Russia.

A great infographic of all of the Russian hydro-meteorological stations and observatories, North Pole drifting stations, and the first polar station is available on RIA Novosti's website.

Russia holds world's most stations

Russia has many more stations in the Arctic than any other country, partly because its history of building infrastructure in the Arctic stretches back quite far in time. It constructed the first station during the early days of the USSR, in 1923.

In 1937, the country built the first drifting ice station. This type of "research vessel," if you will, is a bit of an ingenious invention, reportedly first conceived by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

Yet, as First Lieutenant Charles L. Smith writes in his article on drifting ice stations, it took a near tragedy to lead to a breakthrough in polar exploration. In 1933, the Soviet steamship Chelyuskin was sailing across the Northern Sea Route, ironically to investigate whether a ship that was not an icebreaker could make the journey. Though the Chelyuskin sailed nearly all the way to the eastern end of the route, it could not complete the journe

The ship became lodged in an ice pack in the Chukchi Sea. The immense pressure crushed the ship, causing it to sink. The crew were able to escape the sinking vessel, and they set up camp on the surrounding ice, where they waited to be rescued by air for two months.

The fact that there was not enough information about sea ice and meteorology and that people could successfully camp on an ice pack led the Russians to construct a drifting ice station.

Setting up a drifting ice station

Popular Mechanics has a great blog post in Russian describing the process of setting up a modern drifting ice station in more detail. In fact, all of the posts in the Polar Mechanics blog (in Russian) are quite interesting, as they were written by an author riding aboard the Yamal icebreaker in 2009. Essentially, a number of houses and insulated tents are set up on a large, flat ice island.

A tractor is in place to move the houses in case the ice starts to crack underneath, while a snowmobile helps quickly move researchers and light equipment. The crew of the ice island also has an all-terrain vehicle, the Lopasnaya, at their disposal. Three 30-kilowatt diesel generators provide power to the researchers on board.

An ice floe can drift for anywhere from one to three years, with researchers being switched out annually. With ice melting more quickly than before, however, drifting ice stations are not lasting as long as anticipated. As the ice melts, a time-tested way of studying it is becoming more difficult to carry out.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.