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Climate ChangeHow Tensions With Russia Are Jeopardizing Key Arctic Research

How Tensions With Russia Are Jeopardizing Key Arctic Research

Biologist Eric Regehr and his colleagues on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studying polar bears from the American side of the Chukchi Sea, which stretches from Alaska to Russia, in 2008. But because the region warmed, and the increasingly thin spring sea ice off the Alaskan Coast made helicopter landings unsafe, he knew he would wish to search out one other base from which to survey the health and size of the population.

Russia’s distant Wrangel Island made a super alternative: a big proportion of Chukchi Sea polar bears take refuge here in the course of the summer, and the Russian Federation had, in 2000, signed an agreement with the U.S. to guard this population. Collaborating in the sector, Russian and American scientists were eventually able to verify, in 2016, that the population of three,000 animals gave the impression to be faring well, despite the rapidly receding sea ice and Indigenous subsistence hunting.

After a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19, Regehr, now with the University of Washington, was wanting to return to his research on Wrangel. But when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, his plans abruptly modified. So did those of virtually every government, university, institute, and nonprofit scientist working with Russian colleagues. Suddenly, nearly every international collaborative effort with Russia within the Arctic — from polar bear and whale studies to research on business fishing, permafrost thaw, sea-ice retreat, peatland ecology, and wildfires — was on hold.

The cessation of scientific collaboration comes at a precarious moment for the Arctic.

“A lot of what we want to learn about these impacts is being lost,” Regehr says. “It’s hard to see how we’re going to give you the chance to resume the science without the federal government and non-government funding [for] us and the Russians, and without us being there to work with their scientists.”

The cessation of scientific collaboration comes at a precarious moment for the Arctic. Environmental risks related to sea ice loss, pollution, and shipping are increasing; Russia and other Arctic states are proposing recent boundary lines along the continental shelf that might expand their claims over the Arctic Ocean seabed; and peatlands have been continuing to burn after a 12 months of record-setting wildfires in northern Russia, adding substantially to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Russia is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.) As well as, China is ramping up its economic interests within the Arctic.

“The Arctic has long been a model for optimism and international cooperation,” says Evan T. Bloom, a senior fellow on the Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. diplomat engaged for nearly three a long time on Arctic governance. “The disruption of cooperation is vital due to [Ukraine] crisis, but there may be no progress on pan-Arctic issues without Russian participation.”

The Alfred Wegener Institute’s Polarstern research vessel was resupplied by each German and Russian icebreakers during a 2020 expedition. The Alfred Wegener Institute has withdrawn cooperation with Russia on Arctic research.
Alfred Wegener Institute

Scientists from across the globe have collaborated within the Arctic a minimum of for the reason that Cold War. Three years after the Cuban missile crisis, representatives from the Soviet Union attended the primary of many circumpolar meetings on the study of polar bears, which were in serious decline from overhunting. The Soviet Union was a signatory to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which went into effect in 1973, and the five-nation Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which went into force three years later.

The Russians have also been intimately involved with the International Maritime Organization and the World Meteorological Organization, which provides the framework for international cooperation on weather, climate, and water cycles each within the Arctic and across the globe. And so they have been a key player within the Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation among the many eight Arctic states. The Council meets usually — with nations holding two-year rotating chairmanships — to work on issues related to sustainable development and environmental protection.

Now, much of this international collaboration is on pause, partly because the opposite seven Arctic Council states have suspended communication with Russia. Other projects have halted completely as government scientists and non-governmental organizations in Russia have fled the country, been silenced by Russian authorities, or denied the international funds, expertise, and infrastructure needed to maintain their joint work going.

Russia has half the Arctic’s land mass and jurisdiction over a lot of the Arctic Ocean.

An October 2022 report commissioned by the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office summed up the impact of Russian aggression on international Arctic cooperation by acknowledging that, while conditions may change, “one thing is definite, there can be no return to the pre-war reality.”

The lack of Russia, each as a collaborator and as an lively member of the Arctic Council is profound, notes Bloom, since the country has half the Arctic’s land mass, jurisdiction over a lot of the Arctic Ocean, is home to almost half of the Arctic’s population, and oversees a lot of the region’s economic development.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, scientific and diplomatic progress was being made on many emerging environmental issues, including the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries within the Central Arctic Ocean. Most of this region is roofed by ice year-round, stopping the potential of a business fishery. But because the ice retreats, fishing countries could eventually move in and wipe out fishery stocks, as happened with walleye pollack in an unregulated area of the Bering Sea within the Nineteen Eighties. The important thing element of the Central Arctic Ocean agreement, which takes a science-based approach to fisheries management before permitting business fishing, is in peril without Russian scientists verifying data that might form the premise for launching future fisheries.

Eric Regehr and a Russian scientist survey polar bears on Wrangel Island in 2017.

Eric Regehr and a Russian scientist survey polar bears on Wrangel Island in 2017.
Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve

Some Russians did show up at a global meeting on Central Arctic Ocean fisheries that was held in South Korea in November of 2022, says Bloom, who was invited to talk virtually on the importance of the fisheries agreement on the meeting. “But they were low level and without the authority to make decisions about future scientific participation,” he says. “It’s hard to see things moving forward as long as there’s war in Ukraine.”

The war in Ukraine has also put a halt to many climate-based collaborations inside Russia. Russia has more peatlands than another country. Carbon-rich, lots of these peatlands have been badly degraded by mining, agriculture, forestry practices, and oil and gas development. And climate change has made them vulnerable to wildfires. In 2010, Russia had 30,000 fires in greater than 20 regions. Wildfires and peatland degradation currently account for five percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Following the catastrophic 2010 fire season, the German government offered money and expertise to assist restore the hydrological regimes that keep Russia’s peaty bogs, fens, and marshes wet and their carbon sequestered. But on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, German institutes — including the Succow Foundation — withdrew their support. Just weeks afterward, a Russian bomb in Ukraine likely triggered a wildfire within the forest across the Chernobyl nuclear site, a spotlight of one other rewetting project.

A volunteer in Russia's Smolensk region waters down fire-prone peatland in 2018.

A volunteer in Russia’s Smolensk region waters down fire-prone peatland in 2018.
Igor Podgorny / Greenpeace

Tatiana Minayeva, a Wetlands International scientist who previously worked as a researcher and scientific consultant for the Russian government, says much progress had been made in Russian peatland restoration before the war broke out. But with little likelihood of collaborations resuming, she hopes the remaining funds from international donors will go to other peatland sites in Central and Eastern Europe.

Most of Russia’s peatlands are frozen in permafrost, which is thawing faster than permafrost in other Arctic nations. Much of the info on this thawing come from the Germany-based Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, which in February of 2022 pulled its support from the Samoylov Island research station in Siberia’s Lena Delta. The station can host as much as 20 scientists at a time and has been collecting reliable data on permafrost since 1998.

Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Crimea in 2014, the Arctic Council found ways of navigating through crises without pausing communications with Russia. And nonprofit organizations with offices in or close ties to Russia helped keep back channels open when the Arctic Council wasn’t willing or able. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for instance, the Pew Charitable Trusts persuaded Russia, the U.S., Canada, Iceland, and other countries to satisfy in Shanghai in 2015 to debate the proposed Central Arctic Fisheries Accord.

“There may be ample opportunity for Arctic governance to get much worse,” says a former diplomat.

But today’s situation is kind of different, says Clive Tesar, former head of communications and external relations for the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Arctic Programme. A lot of those back channels are actually closed or silenced, and now that the seven other Arctic Council states are not any longer communicating with Russia, it’s unclear how international collaborations on a non-governmental level can move forward.

The World Wildlife Fund has worked in Russia for the reason that Nineteen Eighties, when it financed the establishment of the Great Arctic Reserve, the most important nature reserve in Eurasia. Since then, it has been involved in greater than 1,000 field projects, lots of which led to the protection of greater than 200,000 square miles of unique territories, most of them within the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. “It’s going to be very difficult to get things back on course as this war continues,” says Tesar.

Evan Bloom, who helped to determine the Arctic Council and served because the lead U.S. negotiator in establishing the world’s largest marine protected area, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, has been through many international crises and notes that the longer term of Arctic research is “not all gloom and doom.” Multilateral research on the Arctic will proceed in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and in Ny-Ålesund, on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island.

An international researcher near the Ny-Ålesund research station on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island.

A global researcher near the Ny-Ålesund research station on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island.
Ed Struzik

However the Arctic Council is a forum regulated by consensus, Bloom says, and “nothing goes forward there unless all parties agree.” If the situation in Ukraine gets worse, “there’s ample opportunity for Arctic governance to get much worse.”

With Arctic Council communications with Russia suspended indefinitely, the seven other Arctic Council states could proceed working on plans that don’t involve Russian territory, Bloom says. But which may anger and alienate Russia, stopping its future return.

Even when the Arctic Council did discover a method to reconcile with Russia, or to forge a unique path forward, it’s hard to assume the research community returning to pre-war normal, because so lots of Russia’s best Arctic scientists have fled the country or are searching for ways to emigrate.

Some, like Olga Shpak, a Ukrainian marine biologist formerly working with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, gave up her research to volunteer on the front lines to defend her hometown last spring. “My life has modified drastically on February twenty fourth,” she said at a gathering of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing last October. “My priority just isn’t science, not Arctic, not whales, but people.”


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