This year, polar bears will cross from Alaska to Siberia as they do every spring, plodding across the frozen Chukchi Sea to their summer home on Russia’s Wrangel Island. But this time, U.S. scientists won’t be following them.
“There’s no way,” says Eric Regehr, a University of Washington (UW), Seattle, polar bear biologist who was planning to travel to the island in October along with Russian researchers. “The idea of it being legal and safe and practical to go over there is zero.”
The fate of this annual science expedition, which offers a critical window into the fate of thousands of bears, is just one sign of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is curtailing research collaborations all over the globe. As other countries shun and sanction Russia for its aggression, Arctic research focusing on topics such as salmon, polar bears, and migratory birds is emerging as a casualty.
“It looks like Iron Curtain 2 has come down between us,” says James Morison, a UW oceanographer whose polar research began in the 1970s, during the Cold War. “A small concern relative to the suffering of the Ukrainian people, but an unfortunate wrinkle nonetheless.”
The Arctic is ringed by global powers with intertwined claims to a region rich in resources and scientific puzzles, including the effects of a climate that is warming four times faster than the rest of the world. On Thursday, seven of the eight Arctic nations—the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—announced they were “temporarily pausing” their participation in the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental body that coordinates Arctic policy, which Russia now leads. The countries also said representatives would not travel to council meetings in Russia “in light of Russia’s flagrant violation” of Ukrainian sovereignty.
The move is “very unfortunate but seems necessary,” says Marisol Maddox, an expert in Arctic policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Although the Arctic Council doesn’t directly fund research, it helps set the scientific agenda for collaboration among member countries, says Marisol, who advises a council working group on sustainable development. For example, under Russian leadership, the council was planning research on thawing permafrost, a pressing issue in northern Russia. The international rupture “does not bode well for cooperation on climate change research, unfortunately,” she says.
It could take months or years for the decisions of international bodies like the Arctic Council to trickle down to specific research projects, but scientists such as Regehr are already feeling the effects of the break with Russia.
A 2000 treaty between the United States and Russia governs management of roughly 3000 polar bears that cross between the two countries. In recent years, U.S. and Russian scientists converged on Wrangel Island, where as many as 1000 of the animals spend part of the summer. There, the researchers count and monitor the bears.
The pandemic scuppered those annual visits in 2020 and 2021, leaving Russian scientists to collect information on their own. But until last month, Regehr and scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had planned to resume work on the island this year. On 23 February, Regehr was among U.S. and Russian scientists who discussed the potential effects of the growing tensions at the Ukraine border. “Everybody said, ‘Well, we’ve kind of been there before. … It’s always worked out,’” Regehr recalls.
The next day, Russia launched its invasion. FWS ordered government researchers to stop communicating with their Russian partners. Regehr’s efforts to get a ride aboard a private ship to the island went nowhere “Everything is just kind of grinding to a halt,” he says.
Although missing a year of data might not have a huge impact, if the breakdown persists, Regehr fears it could threaten a species already facing difficulties because of climate change. The data are used in deciding how many bears Indigenous people can hunt without harming the bear population. “It’s a bad time to stop the data collection.”
FWS referred ScienceInsider’s questions to the Department of State, which issued a statement. “There continue to be challenges that all countries, including the United States and Russia, face where consultations will be necessary to enhance global stability,” the statement said. “Now is not the time for those conversations.”
The war has also forced salmon scientists to change course, just as they were mounting a widely publicized collaboration involving Russian, U.S., and Canadian research vessels. The mission aims to better understand salmon ecology in the North Pacific Ocean, the winter home for salmon that spawn in rivers in all three countries. A U.S. scientist was supposed to travel on the Russian vessel Tinro, so that the ship could collect samples within U.S. waters.
But on 24 February, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told project leaders that the U.S. scientist couldn’t board the Russian ship, says Mark Saunders, a marine biologist coordinating the research through the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, an intergovernmental panel involving countries in the region.
Although the Russian research vessel is continuing to collect data at sea, it can’t visit sites along the southern edge of the Aleutian Islands, Saunders says. Those areas are thought to be a destination for sockeye salmon originating from critical fisheries in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and Canada’s Fraser River. Even with the data gaps, information about salmon in this part of the ocean is “so rare that even this reduced survey area will be hugely important,” he says.
Meanwhile, Jan van Gils, an ecologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, had to abandon plans to return to Siberia’s Taymyr Peninsula this summer, where he is studying the plight of the red knot. The shorebird summers in Russia and flies 9000 kilometers to Mauritania, in Africa, for the winter. Working with Russian scientists, he has found that red knot body sizes are shrinking, because of their diet shifting as climate change alters the timing of insect emergence on the tundra. Van Gils had hoped to gather evidence this summer that would clarify the timing of the migrations and its link to the birds’ winter diet in Africa. But today the Dutch government’s science funding agency told him to halt all work with Russian scientists. “I am totally frustrated,” he says. Like Morison, he notes that his upset is small compared with the “loss of the people in Ukraine.”
Then there are research partnerships that might never begin. Today, sensor-laden buoys in the Arctic Ocean are concentrated near North America, which Morison suspects has skewed pictures of ocean currents. He was hoping to work with Russian scientists to collect data from the Russian side of the Arctic.
Now, he fears such collaboration won’t be possible if there is a return to the secrecy and divisions that marked his early Arctic research at the height of the Cold War. Several days ago, he emailed a friend who is a prominent scientist in Moscow. “He hasn’t answered. So I kind of worry that they’re afraid to talk to anybody now,” Morison says. “It’s just horrible.”
Correction, 7 March, 1:05 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the nature of the polar bear research on Wrangel Island and the kind of boat ride Regehr sought to get there.