War in Ukraine | Research in the Russian Arctic is at risk

The war in Ukraine destroyed international scientific cooperation in the Arctic. One of the collateral victims: climate change research.

For nearly 15 years, Gabriela Schaepman-Strub has been at the forefront of Arctic warming. The scientific director of the Swiss Polar Institute travels to the Russian part of the territory every summer to collect environmental data.

Every summer except this year. Since the invasion of Ukraine last February, the Russian Arctic has been virtually inaccessible to Western scientists.

One of the researcher’s projects, also a professor of biology and environmental sciences at the University of Zurich, aims to understand the effects of droughts and rains in northeastern Siberia. The presence of your team in the field is necessary for equipment maintenance and data collection.


Gabriela Schaepman-Strub calibrates a drone sensor during an international expedition to the Russian Arctic in August 2021.


A polar bear on the ice in Franz Joseph Archipelago Bay in the Russian Arctic in August 2021

“It is a project that we have been carrying out for four years and which has required enormous financial and human resources. If we can’t come back next year, I think we’ll have to give it all up. It would be the loss of years of work and information that we urgently need to better predict permafrost thaw and vegetation changes,” she worries.

Many science projects in the Arctic are based, like Gabriela Schaepman-Strub’s, on international partnerships with Russia. But since the beginning of the war the time for collaboration has ceased.

“Much research in the Arctic is paralyzed right now,” said Gary Wilson, professor of political science at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). Most of the international organizations participating in this work have suspended their relations with Russia and withdrawn any Russian component from the projects they finance. »

A former president of the Canadian Association for Northern Studies, Gary Wilson is involved with many of these Arctic research organizations. Like many of his colleagues, he has severed ties with Russian researchers since the start of the war in Ukraine.


Gary Wilson, former president of the Association of Canadian Northern Studies Universities

The international relations of these researchers can be monitored by the Russian government. Simply being in contact with Westerners could put them in danger.

Gary Wilson, former president of the Association of Canadian Northern Studies Universities

The climate crisis put on ice

This research – now stopped – is crucial in a context of climate change, Gary Wilson points out. “Russia covers more than a third of the Arctic. We need constant data to study the different phenomena in this region. The war has been going on for almost a year. This already represents a year of missing data,” he laments.

The Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the world, according to a recent study by the Finnish Meteorological Institute. Some of its regions, like Svalbard, just experienced the hottest summer on record.

And this is just a taste of the years to come.

Melting Arctic permafrost amplifies global warming by releasing carbon, in the form of CO22 and methane. According to current scientific models, this soil contains 1.7 trillion tons of carbon, double the amount already present in the atmosphere and four times the amount man-made since the industrial revolution.

“We can study what’s happening in the rest of the Arctic, but that doesn’t allow us to extrapolate to the Russian part of the territory,” explains Gabriela Schaepman-Strub. The climate and environment in the Russian Arctic are very different. And the phenomena observed in Siberia, for example, are not the same as in northern Canada. »

Some data can be obtained from satellites. But they will never replace field research, argues the Swiss professor.


Gabriela Schaepman-Strub checks moisture sensors embedded in the ground as part of a large rainfall study in the Kytalyk nature reserve in July 2021.

Break the links

Since its founding in 1996, the Arctic Council has been the symbol of cooperation between Northern states. This international forum, which brings together the eight Arctic nations and indigenous peoples of the region, has enabled the creation of numerous environmental science projects.

But uncertainty hangs over the future of the Council. Last March, his work was suspended.

“An important project of the Council that could not be resumed due to the involvement of the Russian Federation is the Circumpolar Wildfire Project, which aims to improve coordination and promote international cooperation in response to catastrophic forest fires in the Arctic,” said the United States Department of State. spokesman said in an email to The print.


Firefighters try to put out a forest fire in Siberia’s Yakutsk region in 2021.

“Forest fires threaten populations in the circumpolar Arctic, particularly in Russia and the United States,” the spokesman added. And in addition to the threats they pose to local communities, they release significant amounts of smoke and carbon black into the atmosphere, harming human health and intensifying the climate change process. »

The severing of all these international ties will leave a deep scientific scar, laments Gabriela Schaepman-Strub.

Collaboration in the Arctic is based on trust. If that trust cannot be rebuilt in politics and security, it will become very difficult to work together internationally.

Gabriela Schaepman-Strub, professor of biology and environmental sciences at the University of Zurich

Some Russian scientists are trying to continue collecting data in their country’s north. But Arctic expeditions are often expensive and difficult to conduct without international support.

“As long as the war continues and there is no peace deal in sight, I believe it will be the status quo,” adds Gary Wilson. Russian researchers will continue to collect data as they can. And with any luck, one day we will have access to this data. »

4.7 million hectares


Overview of a burned forest area in the Sakha-Yakutia region of Siberia in 2021

Area of ​​the region burned by forest fires in the Siberian Arctic from 1982 to 2020, more than a quarter of Canada’s area.

Source: Superior Council for Scientific Research in Spain

280 gigatons per year


Iceberg floating off the east coast of Greenland in 2021

Average ice mass lost from Greenland since 2002.

Source: NASA


Ice in the Victoria Strait in the Canadian Arctic

Another obstacle on the horizon

A recent report by Canada’s Auditor General identifies an additional Arctic challenge for the country: territorial surveillance. The number of voyages to Canadian Arctic waters has tripled in the past 30 years. These activities harm the environment, especially through marine pollution and illegal fishing. However, the equipment used by Canada to monitor maritime activities in the region will reach the end of its useful life before it can even be replaced, warns the auditor general.

Learn more

  • 0.73°C per decade
    Average Arctic warming since satellite observations began in 1979.

    SOURCE: Finnish Meteorological Institute

    Arctic sea ice extent decline since 1979.

    SOURCE: World Wildlife Fund

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