Climate change research in the Arctic is at a standstill
In this edition, Arctic research cooperatives have collapsed, and with them essential global climate change research.
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Russia had to know this day was coming. With Turkey now assenting, Finland will soon officially become a member of NATO. On Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was already tweeting about his delight at being able to raise Finland’s flag “at NATO HQ in the coming days.” Even Finland’s change of government, following Sunday’s election result, changes nothing because the desire to join NATO is unanimous across parties.
A principal reason for Russia’s renewed aggression in Ukraine was, allegedly, NATO’s aggressive eastward expansion, extending its threat all the way up to the Russian border. Finland’s border with Russia extends over 800 miles. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has been reported that only a third of Finns wanted their country to join NATO. But by May 2022, just weeks after the war began, 76% of Finns were convinced Finland’s future lay with the alliance.
So Russia’s war with Ukraine has had the effect of pushing countries into NATO’s arms. With Sweden waiting to clear that same Turkish hurdle, eventually seven of the eight Arctic Council nations will be NATO members, with Russia completely isolated, albeit in control of over half the Arctic coastline and containing half the Arctic population.
In October, the Finnish prime minister’s office published a report on “the impact of Russian aggression on international cooperation in the Arctic region.” Among its highlights, the report noted that “there will be no return to the pre-war reality,” and that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a complex cause-and-effect chain, which affects actions related to climate change and the green transition.” In particular, it is the “paralysis” of research cooperation that concerned the Finnish researchers because it “creates gaps in the knowledge base.”
Before the full-scale war in Ukraine began, the Arctic was the preeminent home to research on the subject of greenhouse gases and climate change. The Arctic Ocean, a sensitive and unique casualty of global warming, has played host to joint scientific research missions. Those missions were supported by Russia, which provided icebreakers and allowed international scientists the opportunity to study permafrost thaws in the country, 60% of which is underlain by the frozen earth.
For the Arctic Council nations, this loss of research has been catastrophic. “All my work with Russia in the Arctic stopped,” Dr. Tatiana Minayeva, the scientific director of Care for Ecosystems, based in Germany, told me via email. “I was working on the Russian Arctic only,” she wrote, “hence my work on the Arctic generally is over.”
When academic partnerships and collaborations will resume is unclear, forcing many scientists to shift to other areas of study virtually overnight. “It’s all in abeyance,” said Rob Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary whose work focuses on Arctic security and sovereignty. “Any attempt to do just science on the practitioner level is over.”
WHY IT MATTERS
The global research collaboration among Arctic nations has been ongoing since the Cold War, with the Soviet Union signing the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships in 1973, becoming a party to a five-nation agreement on the conservation of polar bears in 1976 and playing prominent roles in the International Maritime Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and as a signatory to the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.
Tensions have risen as Russia’s relations with the West have soured in the wake of conflicts in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. The Arctic Council has had to tread a precarious political line. But even in the most fraught periods, nonprofits were able to gather members of the Arctic Council, including the U.S. and Canada, to work out a proposal, for example, on the Central Arctic Fisheries Accord. No longer. Getting the Arctic Council around a table appears, for the foreseeable future, impossible.
“The strength of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that we bring scientists together from across the world,” said Dr. Jackie Dawson, a professor at the University of Ottawa whose research centers on the human and policy dimensions of Arctic climate change. “With a nation missing, that’s a huge perspective missing.”
She told me that the lack of knowledge sharing with Russia impacted everything: “The warming of the climate in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, it affects the entire world.”
Last month an Indian researcher published an article on the website of the Arctic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, calling on India to use its G20 presidency to enable the resumption of research cooperation. “As an unintended consequence of the suspension of scientific cooperation in the Arctic,” he wrote, “the Arctic research of the five Asian Observer countries—India, China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore—also stands affected.” For India, in particular, Arctic research is critical in helping Indian scientists understand the melting of glaciers in the Himalayan region, which contains the world’s largest freshwater reserves outside the North and South Poles.
As for China: According to a Brookings Institution report from 2021, “China describes the Arctic as one of the world’s ‘new strategic frontiers,’ ripe for rivalry and extraction.” Russia, while being wary of Chinese ambitions, may welcome a strategic partnership in the Arctic to balance NATO’s expansion.
One project that was postponed, then canceled, was IODP Expedition 377, an Arctic Ocean mission with plans to collect two 900-meter (half-mile) cores of sediment from the Arctic Ocean floor to help scientists better understand Earth’s long-term climate history. The research mission was planned for August through September and comprised a team of scientists from Norway, the U.S. and Germany, among others, and was supported by two Russian ice breakers.
One of the scientists on that mission, Katrine Husum, told me that the cancellation of the mission was a career low. Based with the Norwegian Polar Institute on the Svalbard peninsula, Husum said she hopes that the international cooperation on which her research is built will one day return. “As researchers,” Husum said, “it’s really unfortunate, because the sort of knowledge gap that now exists is very vast.”
The loss of a collaboration in which Russian scientists played an essential role is by all accounts a tragedy for science. As the Arctic becomes a front for great power games and geopolitical maneuvering, vital climate research and potential solutions for a green transition are being lost.
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