Apr 7, 2022 - Science

Polar science threatens to crack under strain of Russia's war in Ukraine

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Crucial scientific projects in the Arctic are in limbo — and their progress is under threat — as Russia becomes more isolated from the world for its invasion of Ukraine.

Why it matters: These research collaborations provide key insights about the effects of climate change, the health of the oceans and geology — and they underpin cooperation among the U.S., Russia and others in the geopolitical hotspots of the Arctic and Antarctica.

Driving the news: Scientific projects and collaborations are on hold around the world as sanctions and the severing of ties with Russian research institutions prevent scientists in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere from working with their colleagues and students in Russia.

  • The war's effects are being felt acutely by scientists who work in the Arctic, where the summer research season is about to get underway.
  • Last week's Arctic Observing Summit of international scientists monitoring how climate change is affecting the Arctic was closed to researchers from Russian institutions and organizations, Hakai reports.
  • Last month, seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council, whose purview includes research cooperation around sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic, paused all activities with Russia, the council's eighth member and current chair.

Details: About 53% of the Arctic Ocean coastline belongs to Russia. Access alone to that land and sea makes the country a key partner for international research on biology, ecology and conservation.

  • The country is also home to the majority of Arctic permafrost, and in recent years, concerns have grown over the pace and extent of melting and an uptick in Siberian wildfires.
  • Pressing projects to understand Arctic fires, conducted under the Arctic Council's auspices, are in a state of suspended animation.

Yes, but: While the impacts of lost research opportunities will build up over time, a months long pause likely won't be especially damaging, according to Malte Humpert, senior fellow and founder of the nonprofit Arctic Institute.

  • Humpert compares the situation to what companies faced at the start of the COVID pandemic, stating the Arctic Council is asking itself, "How do you continue working when the world enters a new 'normal'?"
  • Still, a longer delay could be far more consequential, he says.
  • "A 'pause' of a few weeks or a few months is one thing, but how will this work be organized and continued if the [Arctic Council] remains defunct for years?" Humpert says.
  • He notes that a lot of science and policy work within the council could be shifted to other organizations and universities if tensions continue to run high. "I think, over time, new pathways to do research work in the Arctic outside the auspice of the Arctic Council will emerge," he says.

On the other end of Earth, Antarctica is dominated by science activities.

  • It's too soon to determine the war's effects on research on the continent as it is heading into winter and reduced operations, says Alan Hemmings, a polar specialist and adjunct professor at the Gateway Antarctica Centre for Antarctic Studies & Research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
  • He adds that large international science programs on Antarctica could continue much like the ISS.

Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and other countries are members of the Antarctic Treaty, which was negotiated in 1959 to promote international scientific cooperation on the continent.

  • Russia is a "big player and has immense capabilities" on the Antarctic continent, where it has five active research stations, Hemmings says.
  • Ukraine also operates a station — Vernadsky — on the continent, which Hemmings says could be difficult to support because the invasion may prevent vessels from rotating personnel from Ukraine to the station. A support ship, Noosfera, departed for Antarctica in January, before the invasion.
  • "One imagines that other Antarctic programmes can assist the Ukrainian programme, but these are grim times for those presently at Vernadsky or aboard Noosfera, watching their country’s assault from afar," he recently wrote.

The big picture: China, India and other countries are keeping — and in some cases moving forward with plans to strengthen — their scientific ties to Russia, Nature reported this week.

  • That follows a general trend of China's increasing international collaboration, they write.
  • Neither China nor India have backed western sanctions against Russia.

What to watch: Existing projects are being stressed but the war could already be shaping the future of polar science.

  • A spokesperson from the National Science Foundation, which leads most U.S. research in the Arctic, urged researchers "to consider whether this is the best time" to conduct projects in Russia or with scientists from Russian institutions or whether their "research objectives can be accomplished through other means."
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