The Arctic has long been a place where national economic interests and planetary health collide. For decades, competition for access to the region’s vast oil and gas reserves has intensified among the countries bordering the Arctic. But, at the same time, these nations have worked together on several fronts, including research. Among their scientific collaborations are studies of the fragile environment of the Arctic, which experiences ice-free days for more of the year as the globe warms.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has greatly increased regional tensions and many collaborations are now in jeopardy. Since March, the work of the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum made up of eight nations and six indigenous groups – has been suspended, in part because Russia is the current holder of the body’s rotating chair. Last month, the other seven nations agreed to continue limited work without Russia, and discussions are ongoing on how the role of chairman could be transferred to Norway next year, as planned.
Scientific collaborations have been similarly affected. Much research and data sharing regarding the Russian Arctic is on hold, in part due to restrictions imposed by funding agencies in Europe and the United States. Additionally, a number of field experiments originally planned for the region moved to the North American or European Arctic. Several international efforts to study permafrost have already been halted following economic sanctions against Russia. While permafrost research undoubtedly continues in Russia, the data is no longer widely available – cutting off a key source of information for climate models that help researchers predict future warming.
The ebb and flow of collaboration
To some extent, such developments are not unexpected. As Nature reports in an article, the invasion had a negative impact on world science – and in particular on collaborations between Russia, the United States and Europe. The reason, as analysts rightly point out, is that scientific collaboration often follows the ebb and flow of broader relationships between nations. When relationships cool down, it inevitably affects collaborations too. However, cutting all research ties is in no one’s interest, given the seriousness of the global problems facing humanity.
The Arctic is warming at least three times faster than the global average; the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has just announced its hottest month of June on record. Melting sea ice is wreaking havoc on hunters’ livelihoods; permafrost thaw causes severe subsidence that can destroy buildings and roads; and forest fires are sending thick sheets of smoke into northern cities.
Faced with the war in Ukraine, it might seem tempting to set science and climate cooperation aside for the time being. But that would be shortsighted. Russia makes up about half of the circumpolar Arctic and plays a crucial role in monitoring environmental changes in the region. The need to address climate change means that it is crucial that researchers, funders and research policy makers in Arctic nations find creative ways to keep the lines of communication open.
Some projects are nearing completion. Ways can certainly be found to move them forward and bring them to fruition. For example, a draft assessment of natural and anthropogenic radioactivity in the Arctic is nearing completion and is to be published when ready. It falls under the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program and incorporates previous contributions from Russian scientists.
Like people around the world, Arctic residents are increasingly concerned about food and energy security. The war in Ukraine has caused fuel prices to skyrocket, adding cost and complexity to the often resource-limited effort to live in the High North. This should not be forgotten as public attention focuses on concerns elsewhere.
At the same time, all efforts to maintain research collaboration (where safe and possible) should be supported. It is reckless – in fact, counterproductive – when regional and bilateral tensions end all scientific ties. This did not happen during the Cold War. This did not happen during some of the other conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. This must not happen now.