Scientists fear excluding Russia from Arctic research will derail climate change effort

29 Mar 2022 | News

The Arctic circle is warming three times as quickly as the rest of the planet. With access to research in Siberia now restricted, the impact could be ‘felt all around the world’

Ny Alesund in Svalbard, Norway, the most northerly civilian settlement in the world with 16 permanent arctic research stations

Crucial climate change research in the Artic is in jeopardy after the operation of the Arctic Council that coordinates the work was put on hold following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Terry Callaghan, an Arctic ecology expert who has spent a large part of his career in Siberia. “If we cut Russia off now, there’s an extremely high volume of research that the west will not get to see for the foreseeable future. The impact of that and the impacts of climate change on Siberia could be felt all around the world.”

The Arctic Council is responsible for setting up working groups and creating an environment where the eight so-called Arctic powers can develop strategies to enable better research collaboration. As current chair of the organisation, Russia would in normal times be leading this effort, but the other members Canada, Denmark (with Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the US have said they will not take part in council meetings while the war wages on.

Callaghan founded and formerly led INTERACT, an EU-funded initiative that is investing more than €10 million in Arctic research. Now in its third iteration, INTERACT has established a network linking 89 research stations across the Arctic Circle and northern forest and alpine areas, providing access to 53 of these and enabling information exchange on climate change. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, INTERACT offered transnational access for researchers to 12 Russian research stations.

“There are many projects that are on hold and will die if the conflict is not resolved,” Callaghan said. “For example, within INTERACT researchers and research groups can apply for funding to visit an Arctic research station (apart from their national research stations) and we have granted about 1,000 projects so far. Now, we cannot fund Russian projects based at western research stations and we cannot fund western scientists to visit Russian research stations. So, many projects are now on hold. Whether they die or not, depends on the length of the conflict and we will have to wait and see.”

Callaghan’s concerns are echoed by Marisol Maddox, senior Arctic analyst at the Polar Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. “To not have the data from a place as large as the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation is a huge gap,” Maddox said.

Others say that climate change research is an unavoidable part of collateral damage that needs to happen as sanctions are slapped on Russia.

“We cannot continue a dual track approach opposing Russia's aggression against Ukraine while cooperating on research or climate change somewhere else,” said Anna Fotyga MEP, the rapporteur on a report on Arctic opportunities and concerns that was adopted by the European Parliament in October 2021.

“Access to some data gathered by Russian researchers will be limited but the most important findings will continue to be published,” Fotyga said. “Russia is only part of the Arctic research community, and in my view, not a crucial one for understanding the Arctic. The Arctic Five Universities, four of them in EU countries, have about 90,000 students and 10,000 researchers altogether. We have excellent partners in Canada, many European scientists have been present in the Arctic for decades, and we should strengthen such collaboration.”

Pro-war statements

Fotyga points to the letter of support signed by Russian university rectors as a sign that research activities are not immune from the war’s impact.

“We should be aware that many Russian academics signed pro-war statements that will affect future collaboration. I am sure that no one from the free world would like to continue cooperation with people who openly support aggression.”

But Callaghan is not alone in believing that the statement was signed under duress. “The statement by Russian rectors is horrific,” he said. “However, I strongly suspect that they did not write that unsophisticated propaganda. Furthermore, I suspect that not all the rectors agree with the statement.”

Maddox believes that when it comes to including Russians in climate change research in the Arctic, a nuanced approach must be taken for the greater good.

The big question now is how do we not lose sight of the very serious long-term risks associated with improperly mitigated climate change, while still standing firm against the severe nature of Russia's invasion of Ukraine?” she said.

“The scientific work can be done in a low key way that helps us to have access to the data, but does not condone Russia’s behaviour.”

For instance, Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council would ordinarily give the country the opportunity to host many events in Russia, to showcase the research being led by Russian scientists, and to benefit financially from international visitors.

Maddox is in favour of taking away the political platform of in-person events and ceremonies, without actually stripping Russia of the chairmanship.

Arctic research is a crucial part of the fight against climate change for several reasons – first and foremost, because the Arctic is a region that is already suffering the ill-effects of global warming. Just this month, weather stations at the north pole recorded temperatures 30 degrees above the norm for the time of year, while Antarctic weather stations recorded temperatures 40 degrees higher than they should be.

Regions like Siberia could hold some of the keys to reducing the impact of climate change. Notably, the Siberian Arctic holds the world’s largest area of permafrost, which is a carbon sink. While this means that the region has the capacity to lock away huge amounts of carbon, it also means that if the permafrost starts to thaw, a “bomb” of carbon dioxide and methane could enter the atmosphere, as bacteria and other microorganisms that are locked into the permafrost could become active and start to release gases.

Editor’s note: this story has been amended to make it clear there are 89 research stations in the Interact network, of which the initiative provides researchers with access to 53.

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