Ukraine conflict keeps grip on Arctic research | Polarjournal
Large-scale thawing of permafrost in the context of global warming is considered one of the most significant tipping elements in climate change. (Photo: Andrian Kolotilin)

The Arctic is warming faster than any other region in the world, making it one of the most important research areas for climate and environmental scientists. The speed of warming is unprecedented and is now considered to progress up to four times faster in the Arctic than elsewhere. And half of this warming area lies in Russian territories. However, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the international community of scientists lost access to the vast part of the Russian polar region.

Due to the Russian actions in the Ukraine, the international Arctic research efforts in the Russian north, especially permafrost research, came to an almost immediate stop. These research efforts had covered topics ranging from polar bears to permafrost and many had been declared previously a model for international collaboration. In the meantime, all high-profile projects involving money or equipment going to Russia have been halted completely. This also includes the flow of data exchange.

The Lena Delta, where the research station on Samoylov Island is located, plays a key role in understanding processes in the permafrost of the Siberian Arctic. (Photo: Anne Morgenstern)

German-Russian research in the Lena Delta

Since 1996, Samoilov Island, in the far north of Russia, is part of the Lena Delta Reserve, Russia’s largest nature reserve with an area of over 60,527 square kilometers. In 1998, an existing old wooden house of the reserve administration was declared a research station on the island. Ever since, the station has been used jointly by the Alfred Wegener Institute and Russian partners for permafrost research. In 2005, the building was expanded and a modern new building was opened in 2013.

Samoilov Island used to be an important permafrost research site. The ground is permanently frozen to a depth of 500 to 600 m. Only in summer a 30 to 45 cm thick layer thaws on the surface, perfect to study the effects of the warming climate on permafrost.

In 2010, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the Samoylov research station. (Photo: Thomas Opel / AWI)

The station was considered a model of international cooperation. In 2010, now Russian President Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, paid a visit to the remote research station in the Lena Delta. Putin expressed his views to a group of scientists, saying, “I see here a good example of international cooperation.” This sounds almost like a mockery today!

Professor Guido Grosse, the head of permafrost research at the German Alfred-Wegener Institute and his team always had a gut-feeling that things might get difficult with Russia. But “nobody expected it to be so dramatic,” says the scientist now. Meanwhile, the international research community lacks any data due to a complete block of data flow leaving the community without any information on how the Russian part of the Arctic is changing.

Eric Regehr examines an anesthetized polar bear. (Photo: Polar Science Center)

Polar bear research on Wrangel Island

Another example is biologist Eric Regehr and his colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who had started to conduct research on polar bears in the U.S. section of the Chukchi Sea in 2008. As the sea also covers a large part of Russia, the team expanded the research area to Russia’s remote Wrangel Island.

Already back in 2000, the Russian Federation had signed an agreement with the US to protect the polar bear population in this region. By cooperation, Russian and American scientists were finally able to confirm in 2016 that the population of 3’000 animals appeared to be doing well, despite rapidly declining sea ice and hunting.

And after the forced stop of all research activities due to the pandemic, Regehr was eager to return to conduct research at Wrangel again. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, changed all his plans entirely. Almost overnight, all efforts for an international cooperation with Russia in the Arctic were put on hold.

Eric Regehr states: “So much of what we need to know about these impacts is lost. It’s hard to imagine how we can restart the science without the government and non-government funding for us and the Russians, and without being on the ground to collaborate with their scientists.”

In summer, bird species such as the Red knot (pictured) inhabit the barren landscape of the Arctic tundra, while in winter they migrate south to coastal areas with muddy plains or sandy beaches. The birds spend the summer in the Arctic and tundra zones of Canada, Russia, and Europe. (Photo: B.N. Singh)

Dutch researchers are also affected

Collaboration with U.S. research teams is not the only one affected. Jan van Gils, an ecologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Marine Research, also had to abandon plans to return to the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia, where he is studying the situation of the Red knot (Calidris canutus). This shorebird covers huge distances during its migrations. In fall, it flies from Siberia to winter in Mauritania in North Africa, 9,000 kilometers away. In collaboration with Russian researchers, van Gils had found that the body size of Red knots is shrinking. This is due to a change in diet, as climate change shifts the timing of insect emergence in the tundra. Van Gils had planned to gather evidence that would clarify the timing of the migrations and their connection to the birds’ winter diet in Africa. However, the Dutch government’s science funding agency asked him to stop all work with Russian scientists. How long this situation will last cannot be predicted at this time.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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