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Polar research: Frozen out

Sanctions on Russia are disrupting polar research, with scientists fearing consequences for climate change

During the Cold War, academic collaboration across nations bordering the Arctic Circle was restricted and difficult. But in 1987, the then head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, said the polar north should be a “zone of peace” and called for Arctic states and regional actors to cooperate on scientific research and environmental protection. 

His speech led to new initiatives, including the creation of the International Arctic Science Committee in 1990 and the Arctic Council in 1996. Today, however, some Arctic cooperation has been put on ice because of sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cooperation on the other side of the Earth, around Antarctica, has also been affected.

Polar scientists from Russia say they’ve been barred from conferences, lost access to data and no longer receive communication from some colleagues in North America or Europe. “Even in Soviet times, the cooperation was more stable,” Dmitry Sergeev, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Sergeev Institute of Environmental Geoscience, who was blocked from attending an International Arctic Science Committee conference, told Research Europe.

The academic sanctions have had some effects that might not have been intended. Some polar researchers in Russia are increasing collaborations with countries in Asia that have not put sanctions in place. They think the negatives of lost cooperation might be short-lived. But many experts around the world worry that divisions could delay important action on mitigating climate change.

Frozen projects

In 2015, Russia had the second-highest number of scientific publications on the Arctic of any country after the United States, according to one analysis. Dag Aksnes, a researcher studying publication statistics at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, who worked on the analysis, told Research Europe he is unaware of any more recent appraisal indicating that the situation may have changed.

Russia continues to chair the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for regional cooperation. But the other seven members—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the US—paused participation in March and announced on 8 June that they would resume limited involvement excluding Russia. Arctic projects involving several countries have also been cancelled. As a result of ties being cut, polar data from Russia have been lost, researchers say.

In April, the EU announced it would be freezing funding to Russian public bodies. Leaders of the International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic project, which was funded under the EU’s Horizon 2020 R&D programme, told Research Europe last month that the decision made it difficult to work with Russian nationals, and that important data would become unavailable.

Polar scientists in Russia have, at the same time, lost access to data from overseas. Elena Shalina, a climate change researcher at the Nansen International Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre, said she was unable to download necessary data from European satellite and climate sources, delaying some of her research. She said her accounts were blocked.

There is more trouble on the horizon, with future projects in limbo. In March, the Swedish government introduced a moratorium against programme-level collaboration with Russian universities. Stockholm University said that a Swedish-led Arctic expedition involving Russian researchers set for 2023 had been put on hold. Previous missions had provided knowledge on the connection between the global carbon cycle and warming in the Arctic. 

Antarctic fears

The effects of geopolitical tensions on cooperation are less clear in Antarctica, where the largest land claimant is Australia. Russia, like Australia, is one of the 12 founding signatories of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and has the same voting rights on Antarctic governance and management. Intersessional working groups of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR ) will start on 27 June, when scientific advice will be discussed for the full scientific committee, which meets in October alongside the Commission itself. 

CCAMLR’s executive secretary told Research Europe that Contracting Party status or Commission membership hadn’t changed since February, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Andrii Fedchuk, head of the Ukraine National Antarctic Scientific Center’s International Scientific and Technical Cooperation Department, said his country “will participate in CCAMLR as usual”. But others involved worry about tensions. “Ukraine and Russia will both be sending representatives, and it will get interesting,” said Chris Jones, a participant in a CCAMLR working group, who represents the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and who will be a US delegate to the October meeting.

Some Antarctic cooperation has already been disrupted. In April, Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Center said that members of a Polish Antarctic expedition cancelled plans to use a chartered Russian vessel and used a Ukrainian ship, Noosfera, instead. The UK’s public research funder, UK Research and Innovation, the same month said it was reviewing current collaborations with Russian-based entities funded by its research councils.

The Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station Logistics Department told Research Europe: “Our cooperation with Russians came to an end due to the military invasion against Ukraine.” The British Antarctic Survey, which is a UKRI-associated research institution, said “the war in Ukraine has impacted a relatively small number of grants across UK Research and Innovation and [its] Natural Environment Research Council”. It could not provide further details “given the sensitivity for staff working on these projects and security issues”.

The proportion of Antarctic collaborations involving two or more countries increased from 23.3 per cent in 1998 to 39.8 per cent in 2015, according to one analysis. Over time, researchers expect reduced Antarctic scientific cooperation with Russia. The sanctions will make it “increasingly difficult to work with Russian researchers at anything more than a personal level”, said Alan Hemmings, a researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, who studies Antarctic governance. “Given the 2021-22 Antarctic season was essentially over before these events unfolded, we may not see the full ramifications for a while yet.”

Climate research disrupted?

Scientists worry that shifting partnerships will lead to negative consequences for climate change research. In a 2021 communication, the European Commission said a “key goal” was closer cooperation with Russia on creating data and services for permafrost areas to improve environmental and health security and to develop mitigation measures. Risks from thawing permafrost and associated emissions release included damage to the Arctic, coastal erosion and direct health concerns, such as the release of anthrax. 

In a commentary published in Nature in May, the executive director and vice-president of the executive committee of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists said they “wish to express the committee’s alarm over the gravitation of multinational polar researchers into western and eastern ‘blocs’ as a result of academic sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Such divisions will obstruct scientific progress and halt vital action against climate change.”

Some polar scientists in Russia are now working on building collaborations with countries in Asia, such as China, where state media have said there is a “neutral stance” on the war between Russia and Ukraine. Olga Makarieva, a hydrologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences Melnikov Permafrost Institute, has lost connections with researchers from Canada, Finland and Norway. But she applied for a new joint project with researchers from China in May and has a joint paper in preparation with colleagues from India. “We will intensify cooperation with other countries, like China and India,” she said.

Russia spent about 1 per cent of its GDP on R&D in 2019, compared with the OECD average of 2.5 per cent. Polar science is expensive: one 2018 study estimated it would cost about 7.8 times more to conduct seabird research in the Arctic than elsewhere. “The Russian government will have to develop our own independent research,” Makarieva said. “Otherwise, the country will not survive.” 

Health risks

There are public health risks of reduced cooperation. In a 2021 communication, the European Commission said that in the Arctic there was “a need to understand better the possible links between climate change, permafrost thaw, and the release of new and old pathogens with epidemic potential”.

It recommended that a monitoring system be set up to detect such pathogens and provide early warning and modelling. Researchers say such a system has not been set up and they don’t know if it could be. “Monitoring of health issues linked to anthrax, for instance, would bear much lesser relevance if Russia was not included,” said Hugues Lantuit, head of the Arctic coastal erosion research group at the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe