March 29, 2022 Why Russia’s War Is So Devastating to Climate Science

A scientist works with permafrost samples in an underground laboratory of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk on Nov. 26, 2018. Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images
A scientist works with permafrost samples in an underground laboratory of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk on Nov. 26, 2018. Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

In France, scientists working on an experimental fusion-power reactor, which could potentially revolutionize how humankind generates carbon-free electricity, had to put their research on hold due to key parts shipping in from Russia. 

A global consortium of permafrost scientists who were set to embark on a multi-year expedition in the Arctic to collect crucial data on global warming have also had to cancel their plans due to Russian sanctions and international uproar.

And the Arctic Council, which helps coordinate oil pollution responses and scientific research activities in the Arctic, practically unraveled this month after seven member countries announced they were boycotting future talks in Russia, which currently chairs the council.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is testing global alliances in the scientific community that have been built over several decades, threatening to derail critical climate research at a time when scientists say there’s no time to waste. The issue is especially poignant in the Arctic, which is warming four times faster than the rest of the world due to climate change and plays a vital role in storing much of the world’s greenhouse gas deposits.

Beneath the Arctic’s frozen surface is approximately 1.5 trillion metric tons of organic carbon matter in the form of frozen soil and ancient plant matter called permafrost. That’s twice as much carbon as what’s currently floating in the atmosphere, and scientists have long warned that as the Arctic’s permafrost melts, it could unleash enough carbon into the air to send the Earth’s climate spiraling out of control. As the planet warms, more Arctic permafrost melts, releasing more carbon gas and driving even more warming in a vicious cycle.

That tipping point is one reason why researchers see their work in the Arctic as so important. Researchers say establishing a baseline on how much carbon the region is absorbing and emitting is crucial to understanding how much of a threat that tipping point poses and how soon it could happen. Russia has also expressed interest in exploring the Arctic’s oil reserves as global warming opens more of the region to possible drilling, a move that could add significantly more CO2 to the atmosphere.

But the ability for scientists to conduct their Arctic research has grown increasingly complicated as Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine drags on into its second month. For one thing, Russia is a massive country that makes up 50 percent of the Arctic coastline.

“At least half our work would have been in Russia, and now we can’t do any science there at all,” Sue Natali, Arctic program director for the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, told TIME Magazine.

Natali is one of the permafrost researchers whose travels to the Arctic have been canceled because of the war. Two pallets of methane and carbon monitoring equipment originally destined for Russian research stations now sit unused in the back of her lab.

Russian and Western scientists have also become dependent on each other’s expertise, as the end of World War II ushered in a new era of scientific discovery and global cooperation. Maribeth Murray, executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary in Alberta, told Hakai Magazine that she “can’t name a field” in which Russian scientists aren’t involved.

In fact, Russian scientists have collaborated with Western researchers on everything from unlocking the power of atoms to firing probes into space, The Associated Press reported. And scientists say that the loss of that kind of cooperation could have longstanding consequences for scientific endeavors and the potential benefits that research could bring to humankind.

With the Arctic Council in possible disarray, it’s also unclear how nations will regulate future activities in the Arctic, such as shipping, drilling and conservation efforts—all of which has been negotiated to some degree or another through the council’s efforts. As sea ice vanishes, polar waters are opening to industries eager to exploit the region’s bounty of natural resources, including oil, gas and valuable metals used in everything from military equipment to renewable energy, Reuters reported.

“The Arctic is facing its biggest crisis in 35 years,” Klaus Dodds, a political expert at Britain’s Royal Holloway University who studies Arctic relations, told the news agency.

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450 square miles

That’s the size of an ice shelf that collapsed last week in East Antarctica, the first time scientists have observed such a collapse in the region since record keeping began nearly half a century ago.