Prospects for Scientific Cooperation With Russia

scientific station
Photo: «Snowflake» station on Yamal peninsula

International scientific cooperation with Russia was stopped in the Arctic because of special military operation in Ukraine started in February 2022. At the same time this cooperation is in demand for projects of global significance: climate change, melting ice, thawing permafrost, ocean acidification, environmental degradation, and the loss of biodiversity. All these global processes are transboundary in nature and global in scale. Their consequences come to states located far from the Arctic ocean and regardless of the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis.

To continue studying global problems without Russia's participation is objectively impossible because in order to build mathematical models describing natural processes, scientists need to regularly receive and accumulate data from sensors distributed throughout all the Arctic. Considering that Russia occupies almost half of the Arctic space, it becomes clear why scientists advocate a return to scientific cooperation with Russia.

Under modern conditions, there are promising projects of cooperation with Russia that are important both for Arctic and non-Arctic states.

The first approach includes scientific infrastructure projects. The most promising is the year-round international Arctic station «Snowflake» on Yamal, which is called the analog of the International Space Station. The project was approved by the Arctic Council working group on sustainable development. According to the plans the station will use only renewable energy sources and hydrogen fuel so the power unit of the station will be absolutely environmentally clean. This type of technology has a global and pioneering character.

scientific cooperation
Photo: «Snowflake» station on Yamal peninsula

Scientists will use the «Snowflake» station to study climate change and the evolution of permafrost. Another advantage of the station is the opportunity to conduct both fundamental and applied research, such as the development of technologies for Arctic medicine, carbon-free energy, transportation, robotic complexes, and biotechnology. «Snowflake» is expected to become a platform for testing Russian and foreign technologies. While cooperation on «Snowflake» in the Arctic Councilworking groups has been suspended, governments and companies from the United Arab Emirates, China, South Korea, Norway and India are showing interest in the project. Test operation is expected to start in 2024.

Floating platforms are of interest to potential Russian partners. Some of them are intended for scientific and educational activities. The research vessels «Mikhail Somov», «Akademik Molchanov», «Akademik Boris Petrov», and «Kapitan Gorovatsky» are used as floating universities. Another part of the platforms providing marine research and expedition includes vessels «Akademik Treshnikov», «Akademik Fyodorov», and «Dal'nee Zelentsy». The recently launched ice-resistant platform «North Pole» with 15 laboratories on board allows year-round Arctic expeditions.

As a result of cooperation between the Institute of Oil and Gas Geology and Geophysics (Russian Academy of Sciences) and the Center of Polar and Marine Research of Helmholtz Institute (Germany) a year-round Russian-German scientific station «Samoilovsky Island» was created to host scientists from different countries. This station focuses on monitoring the dynamics of climate change and permafrost, studying the interactions between the ecosystem and the atmosphere, forecasting of methane emissions. However, international cooperation at the station was discontinued in 2022.

The largest Arctic stations have been in operation since Soviet times: Cape Baranov Ice Base (Severnaya Zemlya archipelago), atmospheric observatory for climate monitoring in Tiksi (Yakutia), Northeast scientific station in Chersky (Yakutia), the Polar Geophysical Institute observatory for monitoring geomagnetic variations and cosmic rays (Svalbard).

As the BRICS countries pay special attention to cooperation in technology, Arctic research, water and environmental protection, and climate change, Russian Trust Arktikugol announced plan to develop an international Arctic science station in collaboration with BRICS states. India and China have demonstrated interest to participate in this project.

The second approach is fundamental research. Among the scientific areas requiring long-term cooperation the study of ocean acidification is one of the priorities. This is a problem that occurs when the alkaline indicator of water declines, threatening the extinction of many species of marine life. For this purpose, the Arctic Ocean Acidification Center was established as part of the Global Ocean Acidification Effect Observation and Research Network. According to experts, to understand ocean acidification, it is necessary to collect huge amounts of data on temperature, salinity, oxygen, pressure, and other parameters. It is crucial that researchers from different countries have free access to the data.

The Arctic Baseline Observations Network project, initiated by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, addresses this challenge. The goal of the network is to create a system for sharing data on changes in the natural, socioeconomic, and cultural conditions of the Arctic. Such projects, with the participation of the International Arctic Science Committee and the Arctic Council working groups simply cannot exist without Russia's participation due to the size of its Arctic space, where the data should be collected.

Climate change studies affect many states, including non-Arctic states. Melting Arctic ice has destabilized the winds over the Indian Ocean, resulting in a chaotic monsoons. This is accompanied by more prolonged droughts and floods, negatively affecting agriculture throughout South Asia. China is experiencing more coastal flooding and inland freezing. In Japan, warming waters are depleting cold-water fish species in coastal seas, the mainstay of fisheries in the northeast of the country. Climate change is creating not only widely discussed problems such as melting permafrost, but also unexpected threats that can quickly become global. For example, Chinese scientists have discovered more than 1,000 new, previously unknown species of bacteria in the melting ice of Tibet. If the melting continues, the bacteria could end up in the rivers of India and China. It is highly likely that today's plants, animals and humans are not immune to the ancient bacteria.

Environmental cooperation should also be mentioned. The interests of the Russia’s Arctic neighbors are based on the development of transboundary pollution control, which was carried out through the Arctic Council working groups until 2022. This work can be continued on a bilateral basis with the Russian Research Center in the Spitsbergen Archipelago, Roshydromet, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, and university centers: SAFU, Moscow State University, Saint-Petersburg State University, Petrozavodsk State University.

The third approach to international scientific cooperation could be the development of unique technologies that meet stringent environmental requirements. The design of local power plants of hybrid type, combining diesel fuel with some type of renewable energy, seems relevant for the long transition to «green energy»:

  • wind power in Tiksi (built by Russia’s RusHydro Holding and the Japan’s state company NEDO);
  • Kola Wind Farm in the Murmansk region (built by Russia’s ENELT and Span’s Siemens Gamesa);
  • solar power in Verkhoyansk, Yakutia (built by the ENELT and RusHydro).

Hybrid power units can save up to 30% of diesel fuel. After foreign partners withdrew from cooperation with Russia in 2022, the production of components was localized by 70%, which made the projects viable.

In addition to hybrid units, small nuclear power plants (SNPP) are considered promising. Russia has technologies of block-transportable nuclear units for power supply of cities and industrial companies remote from the main power system of the country. The core of SNPP is a water-cooled reactor has been adapted from the RITM-200 series used to power Russia's nuclear-powered icebreakers.

 Their advantages are based on fast construction (up to 2 years), modular structure, stable operation, low energy costs, high reliability and environmental friendliness in comparison with renewable energy facilities. Today Rosatom is building the world's first SNPP in Yakutia that is expected to be completed by the end of 2028. It intended to ensure a stable and clean power supply for the development of the Kyuchus gold deposit. The service life of non-replaceable equipment will be up to 60 years.

Similar projects are underway in China, Denmark, the United States, the United Kingdom, Argentina, France, and the Republic of Korea. Another type of existing SNPP is the «Akademik Lomonosov» floating power plant operating in Pevek (Chukotka).

Photo: Rosatom

The next attractive project is «green energy» technology, primarily hydrogen energy. Preferred partners are Japan and the Republic of Korea. However, Russia’s own achievements allow to develop both domestic consumption and export of hydrogen. The main problem is which technology should be used to develop hydrogen production. For the Arctic conditions, the most promising option is to produce hydrogen from the existing overcapacities, whether they are renewable sources or nuclear power plants.

Another area of cooperation is LNG technologies: production, storage, and transportation. In the modern energy market and Russia's internal needs LNG will be needed in the foreseeable future, especially for gasification of Eastern Siberia. On the world markets, LNG supplies meet to the requirements of flexibility both in terms of supply routes and volumes.

Political recommendations

Arctic and non-Arctic states should return to scientific cooperation with Russia in the Arctic. Neither research nor solutions to global challenges related to the Arctic are possible without resuming a minimum of scientific cooperation with Russia. Russia has accumulated impressive scientific experience and developed infrastructure spread over half of the Arctic area. The main problem here is political will and readiness act according to real needs rather than political stereotypes.

The main challenge is to find mechanisms how to resume cooperation with Russia in the Arctic. Such a mechanism should be based on few “pillars”:

Legal – to resume the implementation of the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017) as it is in principle not limited by political or military antagonisms.

Institutional – to use organizations and forums without western control like BRICS having developed platforms for scientific cooperation and independent financial institutions.

Interactive – to stress on bilateral and multilateral cooperation with non-Arctic states in the Arctic zone of Russian Federation demonstrating “opened door” for all interested states who respect Russia’ sovereignty in the Arctic.

Valery Konyshev

Professor, Saint-Petersburg state University