Russian and Western scientists are no longer working together in the Arctic

KNEE-DEEP In the rapids of a stream in the valley of the Pasvic River, Paul Aspholm of the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomics is trying to keep his lifelong work out of politics. Stepping into a frozen stream, he looks into a water visor to find out how many mussels can be found in areas recently exposed to ice melting. He usually compares these numbers with similar data collected by Russian counterparts who also scatter in rivers a few kilometers east. However, all contact with them has ceased.

Dr. Aspholm has spent 30 years studying wildlife in the Arctic Circle, where Norway and Russia march. He needed the help of Russian scientists for almost everything he did. Together, they tracked species ranging from native brown bears in the area to invasive pink salmon driving local trout and salmon, and the bacteria they eat their carcasses poison the river. When spawning as they do, they die in such numbers, killing other animals that live or drink in those bodies of water. They planned to start tracking the movement of Elk along the narrow “super highway” through the tundra this fall, but the war paid off.

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, relations between Russian and Western scientists have been frozen. Hundreds of years of partnerships like Dr. Aspholm have been put on hold indefinitely, and projects involving Russian researchers have either stopped participating or have completely frozen.

This has confused Arctic science. More than half of the Arctic coastline is Russia. Information from Siberian observatories and Arctic buoys provides irreplaceable data on climate change. Fieldwork in the Russian Arctic provides snapshots of how animals, plants and soil respond to this change. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that promotes research in the region, has been suspended since early March.

In northern Norway, Dr. Asform is making a leap of faith. Later this month, he will return the team to Pasbic, which forms part of the Russian border, and participate in the annual bird-counting expedition since 1995. “I’ll do the same as last time,” he says. “And I hope the Russians will appear at the same time and do it on their side as well,” he says. If the Russians don’t show up, he’s worried, any data collected by his team is likely to be incomplete nonsense.

In itself, the knowledge gap about Wader’s peregrine may not be so important. However, such dropouts are summed up. And such losses are important for data useful for climate change studies conducted by bird migration timing.

Doug Rene, president of the University of the Arctic in Tromso, said the sanctions were: The “Arctic Project” is “a major business involving money, equipment and travel, and this is exactly the type of research that is most affected by sanctions,” he said.

Sander Veraverbeke, a climate scientist at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, is another threat to the job. He is studying fires in the Arctic and planned to resume fieldwork in northern Siberia after being lost for two years due to covid-19. Siberia has been on fire since he was last in Russia. In the last three years, a record number of fires have broke out east of the vast land. It’s not a good time to have gaps in the data.

Some work can be done using satellites or by investigating equivalent sites in Canada and Alaska. But this is only available for now. The study of permafrost, which is important for understanding where climate prediction ends, can be particularly distressing. Two-thirds of Russia is covered with permafrost, which traps large amounts of organic matter. When it melts and the organic matter decays, greenhouse gases in the form of methane and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Without adequate data on these emissions, understanding of their contribution to climate change is diminished.

But even more devastating than the year when fieldwork was lost is the damage to the networks that have been carefully tied since the Cold War. The level of formal communication between Western and Russian scientists was much worse than in the late 1970s and 1980s. For example, Russian researchers have been “cancelled” from academic societies such as the Arctic Science Summit Week at the end of March. At this conference, scientists will meet to discuss research presentations, data editing and evaluation, and research priorities.

Climate of opinion

Isolating Russia in this way creates a dilemma. Losing Russia’s contribution to climate science to punish places that invade Ukraine may be considered to cut off the nose to tease the face. “Currently, we’re missing almost two-thirds of the Arctic Circle,” explains Dr. Veraverbeke. “We have many excellent colleagues who need to be contacted and collaborated to understand what is happening in Siberia. It is the most dramatic changing region on the planet. It really influences our understanding of one of them. “

Russian science will also suffer. Russian researchers rely on the West not only for cooperation, but also for the money that accompanies it. China is the only country among Russia’s top 10 scientific collaborators who could not impose post-invasion academic sanctions on Russia, according to publication statistics from Nature Index, a database that tracks scientific achievements. Therefore, there is an impending financial crisis on dozens of Russian research and data stations that have been maintained with Western support.

Even if it starts to normalize quickly, it can be difficult to get it back. “It’s not easy,” says Doug Olsen of the University of the Arctic. “Absolutely unreliable.” In March, 200 of his Russians, including the president of the Federal University of the Arctic Circle in Arkhangelsk, signed a letter in support of the Ukrainian invasion. Meanwhile, in the Pasvic Valley, since the academic curtain fell, Dr. Asform has only contacted Russian scientists on the other side by email from a Carrelia colleague. “It was his opinion about the distribution of mussels,” he laughs. “I can’t reply.” ■■

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Russian and Western scientists are no longer working together in the Arctic

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