The effects of the conflict in Ukraine have rippled across the globe, sending more than two million refugees fleeing, and driving up gasoline prices in the U.S., heating bills in Europe, the cost of bread in the Middle East, and even the price of potato chips around the world. But one of the most significant impacts, for the future of global warming at least, is unfolding thousands of miles away in the Arctic, where vital research on carbon emissions just came to a screeching halt.
Right as Russia decided to attack Ukraine, a global consortium of permafrost scientists was poised to embark on a multi-year, Arctic-wide monitoring effort that would have helped provide crucial data on how the region is warming. But international uproar and financial sanctions over the unprovoked invasion put an immediate stop to any scientific collaboration with Russian researchers. And while climate scientists agree that the sanctions are necessary, they lament the lost opportunity for vital research in the region—Russia accounts for half the Arctic land mass.
“At least half our work would have been in Russia, and now we can’t do any science there at all,” says Sue Natali, Arctic program director for the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, who now has a couple of pallets worth of methane and carbon monitoring equipment originally destined for Russian research stations lying unused in the back of her research center.
As the conflict progresses, experts worry that eroding political cooperation among Arctic nations could see environmentally-harmful Russian activities in the region go unchecked—further worsening the effects of climate change.
After the Amazon rainforest, the Arctic is the second largest carbon sink in the world, locking approximately 1.5 trillion metric tons of organic carbon—twice as much as Earth’s atmosphere currently holds—under thick layers of frozen soil and ancient plant matter called permafrost. At least for now.
The region is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet. As the Arctic heats up, the permafrost thaws, releasing stores of planet-warming carbon and methane gasses in a continuous feedback loop that threatens to turn the Arctic into a net carbon emitter, instead of a carbon sink, locking the planet on a cataclysmic climate trajectory. The problem with the Arctic’s carbon flux, as the exchange of environmental gasses between the land and the atmosphere is called, is that no one knows when, or under what conditions, that tipping point might occur, because scientists still do not have baseline data on how much carbon the region is absorbing or emitting at any given place or time.
A better understanding of the carbon flux in the Arctic is one of the most important elements of understanding, and predicting, climate change in the world today, says Natali. “This is one of the largest and most vulnerable carbon pools on the planet. The region is warming faster than anywhere else, and there are still so many unknowns.” Having data from the Russian Arctic “is essential” she says. “We cannot just ignore what is happening with permafrost in Russia. It’s a massive blind spot.”
An intensifying conflict in Ukraine, however, could have repercussions in the Arctic that go way beyond the permafrost study.
Last week, seven of the eight Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States—censured Russia for its actions in Ukraine, and announced that they would suspend their participation in the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental body that coordinates Arctic policy and cooperation.
The Arctic Council was the brainchild of Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, who proposed in 1987 to transform the Arctic into a “pole of peace,” free from the geopolitical tensions that defined member nations’ activities elsewhere in the world. That peace held through the waning days of the Cold War and even when Russia, which is the current head of the Council, annexed Crimea from the Ukrainians in 2014.
While the Council does not directly discuss military security issues, its multiple working groups, which meet several times a year, cover development, exploration, shipping, search and rescue, Indigenous rights, resource extraction, and environmental impact studies across the region. It is unclear when the Council might resume activities, but it’s not likely to happen before the summer of 2023, when the rotating chair shifts from the Russian Federation to Norway. Even then, ongoing sanctions could continue to preclude Russian participation, or meetings on Russian territory. That’s a long time to go without leadership in a key region.
“Stopping Arctic collaboration in general will have big consequences,” says Tero Mustonen, a Finland-based Arctic biodiversity expert and advocate for Arctic Indigenous rights. “The Arctic is the most important canary in the climate change coal mine, so anything that takes away from the capacity to monitor, understand, and respond in an orderly way to climate change in the Arctic is a loss for humanity.”
Mustonen’s Snowchange Cooperative, a consortium of pan-Arctic Indigenous groups, has been participating in the Arctic Council assessments for 20 years. Climate scientists are predicting that the Arctic could start seeing ice-free summers as early as 2035, opening the region up to increased shipping, resource extraction, fishing, and military adventurism. With no mechanism to build new cooperative agreements in place because of the pause in Arctic Council activities, the consequences could be catastrophic for the fragile ecosystem, says Mustonen.
“In a world of dwindling natural resources, the Arctic is the last place where most of those untapped assets—not only minerals, rare earth metals, and timber, but also freshwater and genetic diversity that has been lost elsewhere—can be found,” Mustonen explained. “If we don’t have a friendly mechanism to jointly agree on conservation, research, and development, actions in these areas will lead to a very different climate pathway than the one that could happen if the collaboration was in place.”
Meanwhile, the need for regional dialogue is greater than ever. While few military analysts anticipate a hot war in the polar north—not least because forces from Russia’s Arctic fleet, nominally based in the Kola Peninsula near Finland, are currently fighting in Ukraine—the potential for miscommunications to escalate into flashpoints is high, particularly if NATO forces end up getting dragged into Ukraine’s war.
“I would not put it past [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to now view the Arctic as another avenue for conflict, and one that will allow him to flex his muscles,” says Daniel Silverberg, a managing director for the Washington, D.C.-based policy strategy consultancy Capstone, and an adjunct senior fellow for energy, economics, and security at policy organization, the Center For a New American Security. Putin has any number of options at his disposal to inflict pain on the United States and its allies in the Arctic in a way that does not necessarily rise to an act of war, notes Silverberg, but still manages to be deleterious to regional commerce. Russia could use its vast new fleet of icebreakers to make passage across the polar sea routes more difficult for foreign vessels, or fish on the edges of territorial waters, which could hurt domestic fishing industries
Far more likely, and worrying, says Silverberg, is that without the Arctic Council to hold it accountable, Russia could commit some kind of climate-harming actions in the far north, such as gas flaring which releases planet-warming methane emission, or develop new climate and environment-harming mining activities that would normally be adjudicated by the Council. “For all of this to be taking place at the exact time when we’re trying to advance COP26 objectives [to reduce carbon emissions and limit warming to 1.5°C beyond pre-industrial levels] is troubling,” says Silverberg. “Obviously, the number one priority is saving human life and stopping the hot conflict, but to the extent climate change is a national security threat, the Arctic is ground zero. We need to be mindful of how this kind of hot conflict ripples into that context.”
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