The ripple effects from the Ukraine conflict have reverberated around the globe and sent more than a million messages. Two million refugees Driving up, fleeing Prices of gasoline in the U.S.., Heating bills for EuropeThe Middle East’s bread prices are high. Potato chips pricesAll over the globe. One of the biggest impacts on global warming is happening thousands of miles from home in the Arctic. There, vital research into carbon emissions has just stopped.
As Russia attacked Ukraine, an international consortium of permafrost researchers was ready to begin a multi-year Arctic-wide monitoring program that would have given crucial data about how it is heating. International uproar and financial sanctions following the unprovoked Russian invasion forced an immediate halt to scientific collaboration with Russian scientists. 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 CenterMassachusetts has now received a handful of pallets of methane- and carbon monitoring gear originally intended to be used for their purposes. Russian research stationsShe hid her body in the back of the 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.
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After the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic, the Arctic ranks second. carbon sinkIn the entire world, there are approximately 1.5 billion 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. So far, so good.
This region is heating four timesThe Arctic heats up faster than any other part of the globe. The Arctic’s heat will cause the permafrost to melt, which releases carbon dioxide and methane gases into the atmosphere. This loop creates a constant feedback loop, which threatens the Arctic becoming a net carbon emitter instead of a sink. It could lock the planet onto a catastrophic climate path. The problem with the Arctic’s carbon fluxThe exchange of environment gasses between land and atmosphere is known as “tipping point”. Scientists don’t know when or how it might happen, since they do not yet have any baseline data.
Natali states that understanding the Arctic’s carbon flux is crucial for understanding climate change and anticipating it. “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.”
However, an intensifying conflict between Ukraine and Russia could have far-reaching consequences for the Arctic, which go beyond what is being studied in permafrost.
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Last week, seven of the eight Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States—CensureRussia apologized for their actions in Ukraine and declared that they would ParticipationIn the Arctic Council (intergovernmental body responsible for coordinating 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. The peace endured the end of Cold War. It was even maintained when Russia (current head of Council) annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Although the Council doesn’t directly address military security concerns, the Council has multiple working groups that meet regularly throughout the year. They cover exploration, shipping and search and rescue as well as Indigenous rights and resource extraction. 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 after that, Russian participation and meetings could be prevented by ongoing sanctions. 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 CooperativeThe Arctic Council assessment process has been carried out by the consortium of pan-Arctic Indigenous group for over 20 years. Scientists predict that the Arctic will soon see. Enjoy ice-free summersAs early as 2035, the area could be open to more shipping, resource extraction and fishing. Mustonen says that the Arctic Council pause has led to no new mechanism for building cooperative agreements. This could have devastating consequences for fragile ecosystem.
“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.”
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The need to have regional dialog is more urgent 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 SilverbergA managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based strategy consulting firm, Policy Strategy. CapstoneAs an adjunct senior fellow in energy, economics and security at the policy organisation, Center For a New American Security. Putin is free to use all of the options available to him to bring down the United States of America and its Arctic allies. This does not have to escalate to war, Silverberg says, but can still be detrimental to regional commerce. Russia might use its large fleet of new icebreakers, to hinder foreign vessels’ passage through the polar ocean routes. Or, it could fish in territorial waters. These could have a negative impact on domestic fishing industry.
Silverberg says that Russia’s actions could be far more dangerous and alarming than usual. Without the Arctic Council holding it responsible, Russia may commit climate-harming acts in the Arctic. For example, gas flaring that releases methane, which can cause global warming, or create new climate- and environmental-harming mining activity that would otherwise be adjudicated and approved 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.”