Header photo: Ukraine’s Vernadsky research base in Antarctica, which previously belonged to the British, has for decades collected temperature data crucial to studying climate change. Credit: Sergio Pitamitz/Biosphoto/Avalon
The polar region is demilitarized, but the conflict is posing a threat to important climate data collected at Ukraine’s research station.
The effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine are being felt thousands of kilometres from the front lines: in Antarctica, where Ukraine’s 28th Antarctic research expedition is under way. Ukraine says that even though Antarctica is officially a demilitarized zone, the conflict is disrupting its research programme — something that Russia doesn’t acknowledge. At Ukraine’s historic Vernadsky station staff shortages resulting from the war are threatening globally significant data sets that researchers say are crucial for showing the rapid effects of human-induced climate change.
The challenges facing Ukraine’s Antarctic research programme represent a loss for science globally, says Olena Marushevska, press secretary for Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Center in Kyiv. Vernadsky Station — formerly a UK base called Faraday Station established in 1947 and transferred to Ukraine in 1996 — has been a key site for the gathering of data on long-term temperature trends that are crucial for studying climate change. Marushevska says few polar researchers can participate in expeditions, because many are fighting or have fled the conflict.
“For decades now, Antarctic scientists have been able to identify the western Antarctic Peninsula as an area of unusually fast warming because of the temperature dataset that has been collected at Vernadsky Station,” says Luis Huckstadt, an Antarctic ecologist at the University of Exeter, UK. “But the importance of the research conducted at Vernadsky is not limited to air temperature data, as that area is of enormous ecological relevance to the entire Antarctic community,” says Huckstadt.
“Long-term datasets from Antarctica are absolutely critical to our ability to continue conducting research on that continent,” says Michael Tift, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “We rely on them to make models for predicting the impacts of climate change in Antarctica and around the world,” he says.
“It’s not that we collect data for ourselves, we collect data for the world,” says Marushevska.
From ice floes to battle zones
In Ukraine, Russian missiles — including one that struck the Antarctic scientific centre in Kyiv last October — threaten staff members and precious data and samples. (Neither Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St Petersburg nor its ministry of science responded to Nature’s requests for comment.)
“It’s not easy,” says Bogdan Gavrylyuk, head of Ukraine’s current Antarctic expedition. Gavrylyuk, a geophysicist at the Institute of Radio Astronomy in Kharkiv who has years of experience in Antarctic research, spent 11 months fighting in the war before he was called to lead the expedition. “Changing from Antarctic activity to army, for me, it was difficult,” he says. “I was ready to lose my life for my country and for my family.”
His experience isn’t unique. Andrii Zotov at the Institute of Marine Biology in Odessa was at Vernadsky Station when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. “The captain of the Antarctic yacht Selma agreed to ferry me through the Drake Passage to Argentina,” says Zotov. From there he travelled to Ukraine, where he returned to a military brigade in which he had fought in 2014 and 2015, after Russia invaded Crimea.
Zotov had been investigating the effects of climate change on the Southern Ocean phytoplankton communities that form the base of the Antarctic food chain. He is one of relatively few Ukrainian specialists in this field and his expertise is valuable to the Antarctic programme, says Marushevska.
“He was at the war for a year and a half, and he was really seriously wounded,” says Marushevska. “Only now, after some rehabilitation, he will be able to return to his algae.”
Despite the war, Ukraine has continued its yearly Antarctic expeditions. Since April, Gavrylyuk has led a team of 14 scientists and technical staff at the Vernadsky Station, monitoring weather patterns and atmospheric conditions, measuring ocean salinity and studying the behaviour of marine mammals. “Fortunately, our Ukrainian government and our ministry of science and education gave money for this expedition and now we [are] working,” says Gavrylyuk. But “we don’t know when war can stop”.
The large economic cost of the war means the future of the research programme is uncertain. Before the war, there were “big plans for station modernization”, says Gavrylyuk; these are now on hold. “If you stop our activity and stop [the] base, later it’s impossible to work here,” he says, because the station requires regular maintenance.
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty designates Antarctica as a demilitarized zone and provides a forum for cooperation. Fifty-six countries are parties to the treaty, but only 29 ‘consultative parties’ — including Russia and Ukraine — can vote at annual meetings. Tension between the two nations has surfaced, including at the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Helsinki in May.
At the event, Johanna Sumuvuori, Finland’s deputy foreign minister at the time, condemned Russia for flouting international law by starting its war in Ukraine. She noted that the country’s activities were antithetical to the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty.
Meanwhile, in a working paper submitted before the meeting, Russia criticized what it termed “politicization” of the gathering. It did not acknowledge the impact of the war on the Ukrainian Antarctic programme. In response, Evgen Dykyi, director of Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Center, told the meeting: “Antarctica and the Antarctic Treaty are not somewhere in space. When one party to the treaty completely disregards the basic principles of the UN, that party cannot demand ‘depoliticization’.”
Marushevska says that cooperation between Ukrainian and Russian scientists in Antarctica, which once included comparing data collected between stations, has collapsed. “We stopped any cooperation with Russian scientists in 2014, even before this war, but now we have much worse relations than before,” she says.
“You cannot be enemies here and so-called friends there, just because you’re in Antarctica, and in the area of the peace,” says Marushevska.