How Tensions With Russia Are Jeopardizing Key Arctic Research

With the Ukraine war, international collaborations with Russia on Arctic research and governance have been strained or broken off. This loss of critical cooperation is compromising efforts to confront mounting environmental risks in the Arctic, from shrinking sea ice to pollution.

Biologist Eric Regehr and his colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studying polar bears from the American side of the Chukchi Sea, which stretches from Alaska to Russia, in 2008. But as the region warmed, and the increasingly thin spring sea ice off the Alaskan Coast made helicopter landings unsafe, he knew he would need to find another base from which to survey the health and size of the population.

Russia’s remote Wrangel Island made an ideal alternative: a large proportion of Chukchi Sea polar bears take refuge here during the summer, and the Russian Federation had, in 2000, signed an agreement with the U.S. to protect this population. Collaborating in the field, Russian and American scientists were eventually able to confirm, in 2016, that the population of 3,000 animals appeared to be faring well, despite the rapidly receding sea ice and Indigenous subsistence hunting.

After a two-year hiatus because of Covid-19, Regehr, now with the University of Washington, was eager to return to his research on Wrangel. But when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, his plans abruptly changed. So did those of virtually every government, university, institute, and nonprofit scientist working with Russian colleagues. Suddenly, nearly every international collaborative effort with Russia in the Arctic — from polar bear and whale studies to research on commercial fishing, permafrost thaw, sea-ice retreat, peatland ecology, and wildfires — was on hold.

The cessation of scientific collaboration comes at a precarious moment for the Arctic.

“So much of what we need to know about these impacts is being lost,” Regehr says. “It’s hard to see how we are going to be able to resume the science without the government and non-government funding [for] us and the Russians, and without us being there to work with their scientists.”

The cessation of scientific collaboration comes at a precarious moment for the Arctic. Environmental risks associated with sea ice loss, pollution, and shipping are increasing; Russia and other Arctic states are proposing new boundary lines along the continental shelf that would expand their claims over the Arctic Ocean seabed; and peatlands have been continuing to burn after a year of record-setting wildfires in northern Russia, adding substantially to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Russia is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.) In addition, China is ramping up its economic interests in the Arctic.

“The Arctic has long been a model for optimism and international cooperation,” says Evan T. Bloom, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. diplomat engaged for nearly three decades on Arctic governance. “The disruption of cooperation is necessary because of the [Ukraine] crisis, but there can be no progress on pan-Arctic issues without Russian participation.”

The German-based Alfred Wegener Institute's Polarstern research vessel with the Russian icebreaker Akademik Fedorov in 2019. The Wegener institute has withdrawn cooperation with Russia on Arctic research.
The German-based Alfred Wegener Institute’s Polarstern research vessel with the Russian icebreaker Akademik Fedorov in 2019. The Wegener institute has withdrawn cooperation with Russia on Arctic research. ALFRED WEGENER INSTITUTE

Scientists from around the globe have collaborated in the Arctic at least since the Cold War. Three years after the Cuban missile crisis, representatives from the Soviet Union attended the first of many circumpolar meetings on the study of polar bears, which were in serious decline from overhunting. The Soviet Union was a signatory to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which went into effect in 1973, and the five-nation Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which went into force three years later.

The Russians have also been intimately involved with the International Maritime Organization and the World Meteorological Organization, which provides the framework for international cooperation on weather, climate, and water cycles both in the Arctic and around the globe. And they have been a key player in the Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation among the eight Arctic states. The Council meets regularly — with nations holding two-year rotating chairmanships — to work on issues related to sustainable development and environmental protection.

Now, much of this international collaboration is on pause, partly because the other seven Arctic Council states have suspended communication with Russia. Other projects have halted completely as government scientists and non-governmental organizations in Russia have fled the country, been silenced by Russian authorities, or denied the international funds, expertise, and infrastructure needed to keep their joint work going.

Russia has half the Arctic’s land mass and jurisdiction over most of the Arctic Ocean.

An October 2022 report commissioned by the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office summed up the impact of Russian aggression on international Arctic cooperation by acknowledging that, while conditions may change, “one thing is certain, there will be no return to the pre-war reality.”

The loss of Russia, both as a collaborator and as an active member of the Arctic Council is profound, notes Bloom, because the country has half the Arctic’s land mass, jurisdiction over most of the Arctic Ocean, is home to nearly half of the Arctic’s population, and oversees most of the region’s economic development.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, scientific and diplomatic progress was being made on many emerging environmental issues, including the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. Most of this region is covered by ice year-round, preventing the possibility of a commercial fishery. But as the ice retreats, fishing countries could eventually move in and wipe out fishery stocks, as happened with walleye pollack in an unregulated area of the Bering Sea in the 1980s. The key element of the Central Arctic Ocean agreement, which takes a science-based approach to fisheries management before permitting commercial fishing, is in peril without Russian scientists verifying data that would form the basis for launching future fisheries.

U.S. biologist Eric Regehr and a Russian colleague survey polar bears on Wrangel Island in 2017.
U.S. biologist Eric Regehr and a Russian colleague survey polar bears on Wrangel Island in 2017. WRANGEL ISLAND STATE NATURE RESERVE

Some Russians did show up at an international meeting on Central Arctic Ocean fisheries that was held in South Korea in November of 2022, says Bloom, who was invited to speak virtually on the significance of the fisheries agreement at the meeting. “But they were low level and without the authority to make decisions about future scientific participation,” he says. “It’s hard to see things moving forward so long as there is war in Ukraine.”

The war in Ukraine has also put a halt to many climate-based collaborations within Russia. Russia has more peatlands than any other country. Carbon-rich, many of these peatlands have been badly degraded by mining, agriculture, forestry practices, and oil and gas development. And climate change has made them vulnerable to wildfires. In 2010, Russia had 30,000 fires in more than 20 regions. Wildfires and peatland degradation currently account for 5 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Following the catastrophic 2010 fire season, the German government offered money and expertise to help restore the hydrological regimes that keep Russia’s peaty bogs, fens, and marshes wet and their carbon sequestered. But on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, German institutes — including the Succow Foundation — withdrew their support. Just weeks afterward, a Russian bomb in Ukraine likely triggered a wildfire in the forest around the Chernobyl nuclear site, a focus of another rewetting project.

A volunteer in Russia's Smolensk region waters down fire-prone peatland in 2018.
A volunteer in Russia’s Smolensk region waters down fire-prone peatland in 2018. IGOR PODGORNY / GREENPEACE

Tatiana Minayeva, a Wetlands International scientist who previously worked as a researcher and scientific consultant for the Russian government, says much progress had been made in Russian peatland restoration before the war broke out. But with little chance of collaborations resuming, she hopes the remaining funds from international donors will go to other peatland sites in Central and Eastern Europe.

Most of Russia’s peatlands are frozen in permafrost, which is thawing faster than permafrost in other Arctic nations. Much of the data on this thawing come from the Germany-based Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, which in February of 2022 pulled its support from the Samoylov Island research station in Siberia’s Lena Delta. The station can host up to 20 scientists at a time and has been collecting reliable data on permafrost since 1998.

Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Crimea in 2014, the Arctic Council found ways of navigating through crises without pausing communications with Russia. And nonprofit organizations with offices in or close ties to Russia helped keep back channels open when the Arctic Council wasn’t willing or able. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, the Pew Charitable Trusts persuaded Russia, the U.S., Canada, Iceland, and other countries to meet in Shanghai in 2015 to discuss the proposed Central Arctic Fisheries Accord.

“There is ample opportunity for Arctic governance to get much worse,” says a former diplomat.

But today’s situation is quite different, says Clive Tesar, former head of communications and external relations for the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Arctic Programme. Many of those back channels are now closed or silenced, and now that the seven other Arctic Council states are no longer communicating with Russia, it’s unclear how international collaborations on a non-governmental level can move forward.

The World Wildlife Fund has worked in Russia since the 1980s, when it financed the establishment of the Great Arctic Reserve, the largest nature reserve in Eurasia. Since then, it has been involved in more than 1,000 field projects, many of which led to the protection of more than 200,000 square miles of unique territories, most of them in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. “It’s going to be very difficult to get things back on track as this war continues,” says Tesar.

Evan Bloom, who helped to establish the Arctic Council and served as the lead U.S. negotiator in establishing the world’s largest marine protected area, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, has been through many international crises and notes that the future of Arctic research is “not all gloom and doom.” Multilateral research on the Arctic will continue in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and in Ny-Ålesund, on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island.

An international researcher near the Ny-Ålesund research station on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island.
An international researcher near the Ny-Ålesund research station on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island. ED STRUZIK

But the Arctic Council is a forum regulated by consensus, Bloom says, and “nothing goes forward there unless all parties agree.” If the situation in Ukraine gets worse, “there is ample opportunity for Arctic governance to get much worse.”

With Arctic Council communications with Russia suspended indefinitely, the seven other Arctic Council states could continue working on plans that don’t involve Russian territory, Bloom says. But that might anger and alienate Russia, preventing its future return.

Even if the Arctic Council did find a way to reconcile with Russia, or to forge a different path forward, it’s hard to imagine the research community returning to pre-war normal, because so many of Russia’s best Arctic scientists have fled the country or are looking for ways to emigrate.

Some, like Olga Shpak, a Ukrainian marine biologist formerly working with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, gave up her research to volunteer on the front lines to defend her hometown last spring. “My life has changed drastically on February 24th,” she said at a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing last October. “My priority is not science, not Arctic, not whales, but people.”