Scientists and diplomats are applauding a new agreement on international scientific cooperation in the Arctic, which entered into force on Wednesday. They said it will help to advance Arctic research across borders and reduce obstacles to research at a time when the region is undergoing rapid changes. Administrative obstacles sometimes have blocked or delayed scientists from having access to Arctic research sites in other countries, they noted.
“The main concern that led to the negotiation of the agreement was that Russia from time to time denied access to its land and water areas in the Arctic to researchers from other states,” Ambassador David Balton, former chair of the Senior Arctic Officials group of the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017, when the United States chaired the council, told Eos. “In this regard, it’s quite important—and interesting—that Russia cochaired (along with the United States) the negotiations that produced the agreement.”
The legally binding Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation promises “to increase effectiveness and efficiency in the development of scientific knowledge about the Arctic.” It focuses on facilitating access to research areas, research infrastructure and facilities, and data. It also calls for education, career development, and training opportunities, and it encourages the use of traditional and local knowledge in planning and conducting scientific activities. In addition, the document calls for each party to the agreement to designate a “competent national authority” as a point of contact to facilitate communication between and among parties, which could help with efficient implementation.
Lowering Administrative Barriers for Arctic Scientists
The agreement was signed last year by the United States, Russia, and the six other countries that are members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. The U.S. National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs led the U.S. delegation to the Arctic Council’s task force that developed the agreement.
The Arctic states negotiated the agreement “to reduce administrative barriers to scientific research in the Arctic,” a U.S. State Department official who works on Arctic issues and is familiar with this agreement told Eos. (The State Department provided its responses to questions from Eos on the condition that this official would be identified only in the above manner.) Once the parties have sufficient experience implementing the agreement, “the science community should notice increased effectiveness and efficiency in the development of scientific knowledge about the Arctic,” the official continued.
A key benefit of the agreement “is its facilitation of access to certain areas in the Arctic that have been long-term challenges for scientists,” stated the official, who added that the agreement ideally would have been open to signature by non-Arctic states. That, the official said, could have helped “to lower administrative barriers for all Arctic scientists worldwide. The parties did agree, however, to allow scientists from non-parties to realize the benefits of the agreement if they partner with a party in their research activity.”
The agreement “facilitates scientific cooperation beyond national borders, and it paves the way for joint responses of the Arctic states to new challenges in the region caused by global climate change and increased human activity,” Vladimir Barbin, senior Arctic official for the Russian Federation, said in a statement provided to Eos on Monday, in advance of the agreement coming into force.
Advancing Arctic Research
The agreement “offers an opportunity to advance Arctic research beyond what was previously possible,” John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent federal agency, told Eos. Farrell, as executive director of the commission, is the U.S. government’s “competent national authority” with respect to the agreement. He said that in a broader sense, the agreement “is important because it provides yet another mechanism by which the conduct of scientific research serves as a means of soft diplomacy among nations that sometimes experience tensions in other sectors.”
Balton, who currently is a senior fellow for the polar initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington, D. C., think tank, also praised the agreement, calling it important for multiple reasons.
“It will facilitate the work of scientists across national boundaries in the Arctic and the bringing of their equipment, material, and data across those borders. This may well usher in a new age of scientific research in the Arctic, particularly by helping ease restrictions on such research that Russia has put in place from time to time,” he said.
“The agreement demonstrates once again that the Arctic states are able to cooperate with each other, despite tensions that exist between Russia and the others,” added Balton, who previously was deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries in the State Department, where he also worked with the Arctic Council.
An Improved Research Climate
For Robert Rich, executive director of the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS), the agreement means there could be an improved research climate in the Arctic region. “The Arctic research community is excited by the prospects of reduced barriers that effective implementation of the agreement could achieve,” he told Eos.
Rich said that he has heard of “many situations where researchers have run into problems that hindered, delayed, or prevented their studies from proceeding.” He said that although he can’t speak to motivations of different countries, sometimes researchers have run into problems exporting their samples from Russia and other countries back to where they can be effectively analyzed; seemingly arbitrary decisions made at the regional or local level have precluded access to certain ships, research stations, or field sites; and some specific Russian-U.S. joint research cruises were canceled by Russian authorities.
Between 1990 and 2014, Russia did not explicitly grant permission—by explicitly denying or by providing no response—43% of the time to U.S. researchers to conduct scientific research in the Russian exclusive economic zone, Farrell noted. He said that the State Department interprets a lack of response to mean no.
“The agreement may help to lower the percentage of time our requests are denied,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding. The agreement consists of great words and intents, but it will have to be exercised to determine its effectiveness and value. When issues addressed by the agreement arise, will they be quickly, efficiently, and effectively resolved to advance Arctic science?”
Hoping the Agreement Makes a Difference
Julie Brigham-Grette, chair of the Polar Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said that scientists have faced “tremendous challenges” in conducting shared research on land and sea “because of our own bureaucracies,” but she called the agreement “really wonderful” and “a win-win agreement for everyone who signs on.”
“This agreement is extremely important to foster scientific collaboration among all Arctic nations, as we are witnessing the rapid transition of the entire Arctic system due to climate change. The massive loss of summer sea ice and the reality of ice-free Arctic summers perhaps only 10 years from now [are] an international game changer,” Brigham-Grette, a professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Eos. “The sea ice is changing, commercial fisheries are migrating, the permafrost is thawing, shipping routes are changing, etc. As the Arctic opens up to new challenges and opportunities, we need to collectively manage and share responsibilities for what humans do to the Arctic. Honestly, we cannot screw this up!”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer
Correction, 25 May 2018: This article was updated to state that the agreement entered into force on Wednesday.