Arctic climate change monitoring hampered by lack of data from Russia – Oulanka is one of the easternmost measuring sites

Russia's attack on Ukraine has weakened the global capability to measure and predict the impacts of rapid Arctic climate change. In a new study published in Nature Climate Change international researchers raise concerns that the ability to advise local and global communities will weaken.
Winter landscape at oulanka
Oulanka research station near the Russian border. Photo Lasse Lecklin

While many of the key indicators of Arctic climate change can be estimated remotely, much of the knowledge is based on measurements on the ground. The significant loss of data from Russian research stations represents half of the Arctic and sub-Arctic landmass and severely hampers the ability to accurately describe conditions across the region.

“We lose data and representativeness of the diversity of the ecosystems in the arctic and boreal zone. We are left with the nearest ecosystem type available on the eastern borders, such as Oulanka, which now surrogates Siberia’s extensive Taiga forests in research”, says Torben R. Christensen, Professor at the University of Oulu and Aarhus in Denmark, who conducts research measurements at Oulanka continuously.

The new study analyses how well the current Interact measurement station network covers key conditions and parametres of climate changes such as annual mean air temperature, total precipitation, snow depth, soil moisture, vegetation biomass, and soil carbon.

A message to politicians

Northern ecosystems are effective in absorbing human-generated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "The northern regions are, in a way, a motor in the natural system. The better the instrumentation, the better the knowledge on the arctic and boreal zone carbon uptake and balance of the ecosystems as they respond to climate change. Now we are losing out on our capability to project what is happening in the future, because we cannot compare current modeling with the data measured in Russia”, Christensen says.

Of particular concern is the impact of large-scale wildfires, which may become more frequent due to increasing heat and drought. These wildfires have the potential to release substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The loss of data also hinders the tracking of global implications of thawing permafrost and greening of the Arctic.

"The war in Ukraine is a terrible tragedy in its own right. But as a result, the ability to understand planet-wide climate change is at risk. We cannot analyse Russian scientists’ important measurements that have nothing to do with the war, but which would cover the rapid changes in the Arctic at large", says Christensen.

The study's authors from Finland, Denmark, the UK and US conclude that the international community should continue efforts to improve research infrastructure and open data sharing to monitor Arctic changes.

Oulanka is an outdoor laboratory where nature's signals tell about climate change without human interference

Oulanka research station is in the boreal forest, only 11 km from the Russian border, and 15 kilometres to the Arctic circle. Dozens of international researchers visit each year to carry out their various measurements. "I believe that as the situation in Russia continues, more researchers will turn to Oulanka", says Riku Paavola, the research station's manager. Oulanka cooperates internationally with numerous research networks, including the University of the Arctic.

One of Oulanka’s distinguishing features is its collection of decades-long measurement time series. These not only monitor greenhouse gas emissions but also provide invaluable research data on the headwaters of large water systems. Additionally, Oulanka’s fenced-off areas allow snow research and the study of reindeers’ impact on vegetation over a 50-year perspective, while minirhizotrons monitor underground root activity.

"These remotely located measuring stations such as Oulanka have a major role to play now ", says Paavola. Finland also has research stations near the eastern border at Värriö hosted by the University of Helsinki and Kevo by the University of Turku, while Norway hosts Svanhovd.

Research stations in national parks or untouched nature are open-air laboratories where human activities do not introduce errors into the measurements. Long measurement histories provide the most reliable data, whilst discontinuities in the data erode scientific knowledge.

“Measuring equipment in Russia is often Western, so calibration and maintenance of equipment is now probably poor. Measurement sites near the border will be increasingly important in patching the climate change observation data partly lost in Russia. If Russia comes to its senses, I believe that scientific cooperation will be among the first to start," says Paavola.

The research article was published on 22.1.2024: López-Blanco, E., Topp-Jørgensen, E., Christensen, T.R. et al. Towards an increasingly biased view on Arctic change. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2024).

Learn more

Torben Christensen tells about climate change research in Oulanka on video

Oulanka research station

Water, Energy and Environmental Engineering research unit

Last updated: 24.1.2024