Russia’s invasion is holding up climate science

This article was originally published by Hakai Magazine.

The war in Ukraine is a deepening humanitarian tragedy that is disrupting international relations around the world. Far from the front lines, Russia’s aggression is taking a different toll — frustrating decades of scientific collaboration, even in the most remote regions of the Arctic Ocean.

The world is heating up fast. The pace of climate change requires extensive scientific investigations in the Arctic regions, where receding sea ice, melting glaciers and other developments are having global consequences.

But the war in Ukraine has disorganized and unsettled a scientific community where international collaboration is vital, says Maribeth Murray, executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary in Alberta. Russia, which controls 50 percent of the world’s Arctic coastline, is a key partner in Arctic science. “I can’t name an area where they aren’t involved,” says Murray.

Murray has felt the war’s impact on Arctic exploration through her coordinating role for the Arctic Observing Summit, a biannual gathering held this week in Tromso, Norway. The meeting brings together international scientists to share insights, exchange ideas and guide the ongoing development of a long-term pan-Arctic observing network. The network aims to understand systemic changes across the Arctic and inform the adaptation and mitigation actions needed to address climate change.

But this year’s summit – and the broader Arctic Science Summit Week of which it is part – is now closed to scientists from Russian institutions and organizations. The International Arctic Science Committee, which is hosting the events, released a statement reaffirming its commitment to “peaceful scientific cooperation among nations” but saying that because of the war “business cannot go on as usual”.

It is the first time the committee has taken such a stance since its work began in the hopeful post-Cold War years – at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, was proposing to make the Arctic a “zone of peace.” ” close.

“We had a good number of scientists from Russia,” says Murray, who adds that their contributions to the summit included sharing reports, attending forums and helping to develop recommendations for larger international bodies like the eight-nation one Arctic Council comprised post-Cold War institution whose members pause cooperation with Russia for the first time.

But the shockwaves of war extend beyond the meetings in Norway. Across the Arctic, partnerships have been frozen with Russian scientists studying polar bears, whales, walruses and more. In many cases, the severing ties will impact research on how climate change is affecting food resources critical to Arctic peoples.

Don Anderson, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is leading one such study. Last year, Anderson and his colleagues found evidence of massive and recurrent harmful algal blooms in the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia. The potential for these blooms is a new development in Arctic waters that could harm marine mammals and the people who depend on them.

“What we’re finding is alarming,” says Anderson. He stresses the need for further research, including on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea, which he has not been able to investigate. Anderson, whose team has found ample evidence of algal blooms stretching as far as the Russian border, believes the risk also exists in Russia’s warming waters and that algae there could be drifting into US waters.

Anderson had previously secured funding to bring Russian scientists to his lab to learn his sampling methods and replicate the research in Russia so communities on both coasts could be educated on potential risks. But the war ruined the plan.

In the Gulf of Alaska, international research involving Russian, Canadian and American teams studying important salmon habitats as part of the International Year of the Salmon (IYS) has also paused.

In late February, a day after Russia attacked Ukraine, US officials barred an American scientist from joining a Russian research vessel participating in the IYS effort. The move prevented the Russian team from taking samples from US waters, creating a gap in their data that stretched hundreds of square kilometers. At the moment, Mark Saunders, who coordinates the Pacific arm of the IYS project, is trying to charter a vessel to collect the missing data. However, he says a long-term partnership with Russia remains in place as the salmon’s habitat extends into Russian waters and is expected to shift north to the Arctic.

Evan Bloom, attorney and diplomat for the Wilson Center Polar Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that, among other things, educates governments on the imperatives of polar research, says collaborative projects to study microplastic pollution and the impact of heavy fuel oils are rising on Arctic shipping and other urgent research is also affected.

But Bloom also acknowledges that the dire circumstances in Ukraine require a strong political response and a pause in cooperation with the Russian government – including its scientists. Unfortunately, he says, it also undermines the science needed to inform actions all governments must take in the face of the changing climate.

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