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The effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on climate research

14 February 2023
Earth scientist Jorien Vonk researches permafrost, the ground that remains frozen year-round in Siberia. Research into permafrost is key to understanding climate change, and the Siberian region is the ideal environment in which to study permafrost landscapes. The suspension of scientific collaboration with Russia has brought that research to a standstill. “This situation is catastrophic in terms of the knowledge that is essential for climate research,” says Vonk.

Permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the amount currently in the atmosphere and it is thawing as a result of global warming. During the thawing process, that carbon is released, resulting in the production of greenhouse gases that could in turn warm the climate even further. Jorien Vonk’s team measures the degradation of permafrost material in the soil and rivers, amongst other things, in several regions, including the Kytalyk National Park and around Chersky in north-east Siberia. This research has now been at a standstill for almost three years, initially due to the pandemic and more recently as a result of the sanctions imposed against Russia.

Vonk: “We are aware that the current situation will create significant knowledge gaps in climate research. It is catastrophic for the international scientific community, but also for the knowledge that is essential to facilitate improved assessment of future climate change and to compensate for it, where possible. In my view, halting international academic collaboration is not an effective sanction.” Nevertheless, the sanctions have caused Vonk to focus instead on Canada and also Alaska to some extent. “Part of my team has consciously shifted their attention to an area nearby Hudson Bay in northern Canada. All very interesting, but it cannot be compared with the Siberian tundra. Next summer, we are again planning to carry out fieldwork in northern Canada and Alaska, although in other locations.”

“The lives of our Russian colleagues have also been thrown into turmoil. My colleagues and I keep wondering what is best for us to do about this situation, but it is extremely complicated.” Vonk hopes the situation changes soon, so that this important research can be resumed.

Image credit: Jorien Vonk