Important Arctic Research Could Be Lost in the Wake of Russia's War
It is not only the ice that is disappearing in the Arctic while the war in Ukraine rages on. Climate scientists also believe that knowledge will be lost if it is not shared and protected. "The research suffers and it will take time to recover," says the Secretary General of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, Thor S. Larsen.
Until five months ago, the cooperation on climate research between Russia and Norway was close and strong, from Nibio to the Institute of Marine Research, educational institutions, and the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Then it came to a halt and the government left it up to the sector itself to draw the lines between institutional cooperation and scientist-to-scientist cooperation after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
While the geopolitical game in the Arctic is about resources and great power, the people in the North are living with climate changes that do not take breaks, even though the cooperation with Russian scientists has done so.
Now researchers are worried that important climate research will be lost in the wake of the war since even a small opening in the collaboration with Russian scientists seems impossible.
Thor S. Larsen is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research. In the early 70s, he was involved in constructing the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears between the five Arctic states Canada, Greenland, Norway, the USA, and the Soviet Union.
The agreement came about through the iron curtain of the Cold War and was negotiated by scientists which knew each other well, using informal channels to the governments.
They ask us not to contact them through formal channels because they might get in trouble.
The agreement applies even today. However, a lot has changed since then, although the situation in Europa is no less tense. The Norwegian government allows contact between Norwegian and Russian scientists, but it does not necessarily work in practice.
The risk Russian scientists run by contacting the West is too great.
Larsen himself experienced losing touch with good Russian colleagues when Russia went to war.
"They ask us not to contact them through formal channels because they might get in trouble. It is horrible. How are we to do this with the political barriers that we have now?" the veteran scientist wonders.
"And although scientists talk to each other, there must be a dialogue with the government. But they are much stricter with sharing information today than when the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was established," says Larsen.
He believes that the government is not interested in entering into a discussion with scientists.
"That would an extraordinary circumstance and would require close and strong connections. If we are to achieve what is called science diplomacy, it entails a close dialogue and mutual trust," believes the scientist.
But as it is now, Russia is locked and closed to foreign scientists.
"If we are to achieve cooperation again, the political situation must change. What is happening now is a tragedy and a loss."
The research will suffer
"What will happen with the Arctic climate research when no one knows what is going on in Russia?"
"It will be a cleft in the well-functioning cooperation that we have had for years, which means that the research will suffer. It is going to take time to recover," says Larsen.
We are now in an unprecedented situation regarding scientific collaboration.
When the collaboration starts up again, it can be with surprising results.
"We might see some conflicting results, for example. We will then have to figure out where we stand, where the path will go, and that will take time," says Thor S. Larsen.
Loses its value
"We are now in an unprecedented situation regarding scientific collaboration and we need to find new paths. If we cannot share our data with everyone, the research loses its value," says Øyvind Paasche, Scientist at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research.
Together with scientists and representatives from the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the World Reindeer Herders Association, he participated in a debate on science in the shadow of the war, during the Arendal week.
"As soon as political restrictions are put on research, we are also placing a lid on who gets to know about the research," says Paasche.
Becomes less Arctic
That large parts of Arctic research are unavailable creates a significant problem. The quick changes in the climate results in quick changes in the ecosystem.
"The longer time it takes before we can share our data with the largest country in the Arctic, the less we know about the status of endangered animals, for example. Nature does not stand still, even when the diplomatic world changes," Ellen Øseth points out, Assisting Director at the Norwegian Polar Institute.
"When the warming of the Arctic is moving three times faster than the rest of the world, we need to work fast. The Arctic is getting less Arctic and we need data quickly. This is the world's canary bird. The Arctic species cannot move further north when it becomes too hot, like other species. We can be losing Arctic species without knowing."
Not that easy
The Norwegian Polar Institute has worked closely with the Norwegian-Russian environmental commission and cooperated with Russia regarding the management of resources in the Barents Sea.
"We were about to establish a joint environmental monitoring in the North," says Øseth.
When the war broke out, the cooperation was put on ice, and, according to Øseth, it is not as easy as it sounds, when the government says that scientist-to-scientist cooperation can continue.
"It could be that Russian scientists cannot or do not want to have contact with Norway. It is not entirely unproblematic for them," says Øseth.
Research happens between individuals and is less important at the state level.
Paasche at the Bjerknes Centre questions the decision to pause the cooperation.
"Was it right to pause the cooperation with Russia because Brussels believed it to be important? The long-term effects of the pause are problematic. We cannot just push a button in three years and restart our cooperation. Everything needs to be rebuilt," says the scientist.
It is not just the ice that is disappearing, but also the knowledge if it is not shared and protected.
Nonetheless, the research panel does not have any immediate solutions to the problem. It is no longer as simple as Russia against the West and Russia has put a lid on all exchange of information. The loopholes that once existed are sealed.
Although the frameworks have changed, scientists still have to find ways to share information, believes Øyvind Paasche.
"The advantage of scientific diplomacy is that all scientists participate of own free will. There will always be someone who has reservations about speaking out, and the individual scientist must make their own assessments and ask themselves if they can stand up in any forum and support this. Now there are more answers to questions which are not being shared," says Paasche.
"When we received the message that we could not work with Russia, it was a defeat," believes the scientist.
Climate researcher and president of The Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, Grete Hovelsrud, believes that climate research is not a central priority during the war, because it is not about economy or safety.
For example, the fishery cooperation Norway has with Russia is protected, something the Minister of Fisheries Bjørnar Skjæran (Ap) has repeated on several occasions.
The scientists do not share the same view.
"But research happens between individuals and is simply less important at the state level," says Hovelsrud to HNN.
"This is very sad for us. We are receiving e-mails from Russian colleagues where they write that this will probably be the last that we hear from them until this is over and that they are scared to write. That is when we realize that what we have built over so many years is now falling into disrepair," says the polar researcher.
– For oss er det veldig trist. Vi får eposter fra russiske kolleger der de skriver at dette nok er det siste vi hører fra dem inntil dette er over, og at de ikke tør skrive. Da skjønner vi at det vi har bygd opp over så mange år nå forfaller, sier polarforskeren.
"So research in the Arctic has a lower political priority, as you experience it?"
"Yes. I understand that The Research Council of Norway is freezing funds for Russian scientists, but they can encourage us to continue the cooperation if the Russian scientists dare. When it comes to fishery, it is about the economy and it is important bilateral, but when it comes to research, it is okay to pause it. But it is not that easy to start up again after the war, because we need to rebuild trust and a lot will have happened in the field," concludes Hovelsrud.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.