Biologist Eric Regehr and his colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began studying polar bears from the American side of the Chukchi Sea, which stretches from Alaska to Russia, in 2008. But as the region warmed, and the increasingly thin spring sea ice off the Alaskan Coast made helicopter landings unsafe, he knew he would need to find another base from which to survey the health and size of the population.
Russia’s remote Wrangel Island made an ideal alternative: a large proportion of Chukchi Sea polar bears take refuge here during the summer, and the Russian Federation had, in 2000, signed an agreement with the U.S. to protect this population. Collaborating in the field, Russian and American scientists were eventually able to confirm, in 2016, that the population of 3,000 animals appeared to be faring well, despite the rapidly receding sea ice and Indigenous subsistence hunting.
After a two-year hiatus because of Covid-19, Regehr, now with the University of Washington, was eager to return to his research on Wrangel. But when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, his plans abruptly changed. So did those of virtually every government, university, institute, and nonprofit scientist working with Russian colleagues. Suddenly, nearly every international collaborative effort with Russia in the Arctic — from polar bear and whale studies to research on commercial fishing, permafrost thaw, sea-ice retreat, peatland ecology, and wildfires — was on hold.
“So much of what we need to know about these impacts is being lost,” Regehr says. “It’s hard to see how we are going to be able to resume the science without the government and non-government funding [for] us and the Russians, and without us being there to work with their scientists.”
The cessation of scientific collaboration comes at a precarious moment for the Arctic. Environmental risks associated with sea ice loss, pollution, and shipping are increasing; Russia and other Arctic states are proposing new boundary lines along the continental shelf that would expand their claims over the Arctic Ocean seabed; and peatlands have been continuing to burn after a year of record-setting wildfires in northern Russia, adding substantially to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Russia is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.) In addition, China is ramping up its economic interests in the Arctic.
“The Arctic has long been a model for optimism and international cooperation,” says Evan T. Bloom, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. diplomat engaged for nearly three decades on Arctic governance. “The disruption of cooperation is necessary because of the [Ukraine] crisis, but there can be no progress on pan-Arctic issues without Russian participation.” [Continue reading…]