22 February 2024

Lack of data from Russia puts Arctic climate study at risk


After the invasion of Ukraine, communications between Arctic stations in Russia and those located in Western countries broke down. And not without consequences, says a Danish study

by Matteo Cavallito


The end of collaboration between Russia stations and their Western counterparts engaged in monitoring the Arctic region has made it increasingly difficult to collect comprehensive climate change data. An obvious problem that risks creating new distortions by further limiting an already not entirely effective observation system. That is the alarm raised by an international study led by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark and published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Communications broke down after the attack on Ukraine

The authors looked at the work of the INTERACT project, an initiative currently involving 74 land bases in northern Europe, the United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland. The list originally included an additional 21 Russian research stations that are now momentarily “on pause.” After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in fact, relations broke down. But not without consequences.

“Data that used to flow from Russian Arctic research stations and into the international scientific community stopped coming,” a statement from the Danish university says. “And that is a problem because it (the lack of information, ed.) severely limits our understanding of the rapid changes the Arctic is undergoing.” Cutting off, in effect, half of the region’s landmass.

The study

To assess the impact of the information gap, “we quantify how well Arctic research stations, with or without Russian stations included, represent ecosystem conditions at the pan-Arctic scale,” the study says. The researchers, in particular, focused on eight key variables. These are average annual air temperature, total precipitation, snow depth, soil moisture, vegetation biomass, soil carbon, net primary productivity and heterotrophic respiration.

Ultimately, the study notes, the absence of data from Russia, “resulted in a marked further loss of representativeness across almost all ecosystem variables, compared to modelled variables for the pan-Arctic region as a whole.”

One of the most problematic aspects is the exclusion of the Siberian taiga, the typical Russian boreal forest. This ecosystem, recalls Efrén López-Blanco, a researcher at Aarhus University and co-author of the study, “uptakes a substantial amount of carbon, carbon that is accumulated as biomass and soil organic carbon. Siberia is therefore an important part of the arctic climate system. Leaving most of them out, it further increases our bias.”

With or without Russia, a more representative system is needed

According to López-Blanco, the loss of data from Russia may erode “the capacity to track global ecological responses to climate change including permafrost degradation, vegetation shifts, and carbon emissions.” Therefore, he suggests, it would be appropriate to “iimprove current research infrastructure”. But also to “identify other locations with similar conditions to the ones we are currently missing in Russia,” especially in northern Canada and Scandinavia.

In any case, the research says, the monitoring system as a whole should be modified to become more representative and, consequently, more reliable.

“Our results suggest that, even with all Russian stations included, the INTERACT network is consistently biased for some ecosystem variables and is thus not fully representative of the ecosystem conditions across the pan-Arctic domain,” the study states. “The INTERACT stations are generally located in the slightly warmer and wetter parts of the Arctic in areas with generally deeper snowpacks (…) and lower vegetation biomass and soil carbon than the Arctic region as a whole”