The Arctic Sounder

Russian war on Ukraine obstructs Arctic research

Predicting environmental changes in the Arctic is never an easy task. It has become even harder after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which limited the data available to researchers from the northernmost places.

This is the results from a study published on Jan. 22 in Nature Climate Change by international scientists, including one from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The study compared how well models can estimate the effects of climate change with and without research stations located in Russia, geographically the largest Arctic nation, according to the UAF press release.

“If you take out all those Russian stations, then you’re losing that ability to define the models for basically all of Russia, which is a large area — you know, it’s about half of the Arctic,” said Syndonia Bret-Harte, a UAF biologist and co-author of the report. “By removing Russia from the picture, we’re really diminishing our ability to understand and respond to Arctic change and its feedbacks on the rest of the world.”

The study focused on eight essential variables describing key conditions in Arctic ecosystems: annual mean air temperature; total precipitation; snow depth; soil moisture; vegetation biomass; soil carbon; net primary productivity, which means the rate at which energy is stored as biomass by plants; and heterotrophic respiration, which means a mechanism through which the soil release CO2 into the atmosphere.

First, the researchers looked at the current climate and whether the models capture the existing variability. Then they asked what would happen if you took the Russian stations out. Without data from Russian stations, the uncertainty in climate predictions increased for almost all of those environmental variables, concluded Bret-Harte, who is the science director of UAF’s Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska, involved in international monitoring in the Arctic.

“What they found was that it became so much more uncertain that uncertainty was actually equivalent to the effect of the change that you’re expecting to see as climate warms in the next century,” Bret-Harte said. “That really diminishes our power to say whether that change is really occurring or not.”

The bigger implication of the loss of data is that “the ability to initiate well-informed management and conservation initiatives that would help mitigate some of the negative consequences and risks exposed by climate change is greatly reduced,” the research said.


One example of a significant loss in data and prediction ability is taiga, a forest of the cold, subarctic region. The world’s largest taiga covers about 3,600 miles in Russia.

“There’s a boreal forest in Alaska and Canada also but the Siberian, the Russian taiga is so widespread, and it’s subtly different” in the species that inhabit it, Bret-Harte said. “So you can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, it will be just like the Alaska boreal forests or just like the Canadian boreal forests. You have to consider that it might behave somewhat differently.”

When the large swath of taiga in Russia is not represented in the climate prediction models, the whole circumpolar region appears to be wetter and to have less plant biomass than it actually does, the release said.

“The loss of Siberian research stations may be particularly detrimental for the ability to track global implications of thawing permafrost, shifts in biodiversity, including shrubification and carbon dynamics,” the research description stated.

Since the early 2000s, almost 100 field stations across the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia and Mongolia have coordinated research to better understand Arctic change and its impact on local and global communities, participating in an International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic known as Interact.

When Russia started the war with Ukraine in 2022, the European Union limited Interact’s collaborations with Russian researchers, and all 21 Russian stations were dropped from its activities. Additionally, the Russian government blocked their scientists from sharing data with international collaborators.

Researchers still have some indirect methods of getting data, for example, using satellites. However, to analyze it fully, researchers need to look at the situation on the ground.

“To understand what the satellites are telling you, it’s really good to have ground-based data that you can compare it,” Bret-Harte said.

The implications of the gap in the data go beyond climate prediction models. The Interact network promoted collaboration between Russians, Europeans and Americans, and it might take a really long time to build those collaborations back up, she said.

“Having the ability to form these collaborations and work together helps promote an understanding of science and also an understanding of people,” she said. “It’s beneficial both in terms of giving us the best scientific picture that we can get and also in terms of forging connections in different areas of the world and in sharing perspectives.”

“The longer that the war goes on,” she said, “the harder it’s going to be to reestablish those connections once it ends.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.