Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Transboundary Arctic Issues at Stake

| Mar. 28, 2024


Many issues in the Arctic are transboundary in nature and cannot be solved by states acting alone, or even if the seven Arctic states were to act without Russia. During the study group’s third session on February 28, participants examined several key Arctic issues - maritime safety and security, commercial fisheries, and climate change and energy - and the difficulties of addressing them without Russian involvement. The group also considered general questions about approaches to transboundary collaboration at this tense geopolitical moment. 


This six-session study group, led by Arctic Initiative Senior Fellow Margaret Williams, is evaluating the costs and benefits of renewing cooperation with Russia on science and conservation issues. In the process, participants will learn about the Arctic's unique environmental and cultural characteristics, as well as the key agreements and governance structures supporting environmental protection and sustainable development in the region. 

Maritime Safety and Security

As sea ice vanishes due to climate change, the Arctic Ocean’s shipping season has lengthened by two months. As vessel traffic along Russia’s Northern Sea Route (a “shortcut” for ships traveling between Europe and Asia, which we discussed in detail in session #2) grows, so does the risk of oil spills or accidents that could harm mariners. Increased vigilance and preventative measures are required to safeguard the region’s people and nature.

In the Bering Strait - the strategic chokepoint linking the Arctic Ocean with the Bering Sea that is just 53 miles wide at its narrowest point – an oil spill or other accident could endanger coastal communities in both the United States and Russia. Despite warming waters and shrinking ice, conditions in the Arctic Ocean - such as unpredictable ice coverage, storms, and inadequate hydrographic and navigational charting - remain harsh and make responding to incidents extremely challenging. This is exacerbated by an acute infrastructure gap on the U.S. side.

Therefore, it is in the interest of both the United States and Russia to collaborate on maritime safety and security. In fact, the United States and Russia have a good track record of collaboration in the Bering Strait. However, the post-invasion pause in collaboration between U.S. and Russian federal agencies - including the cancellation of plans for the U.S. Coast Guard and Russia’s Marine Rescue Service to jointly conduct in-water training exercises in the spring of 2022 - has dealt a blow to both countries’ ability to prevent and respond to spills and accidents. 

Given the extremely high tensions between the West and Russia, collaboration between Russian and U.S. agencies will seem diplomatically unsavory to many and unlikely to resume in the near term. However, history has shown that the impacts of oil spills and other pollution incidents, especially in remote, icy waters, can last for many generations. It is critical that Arctic states ensure readiness to respond to spills, accidents, and search and rescue incidents – and more importantly, to prevent them in the first place. The United States should find ways to collaborate with Russia at the working level. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard could allow for onsite emergency response personnel in Alaska to conduct planning exercises with Russian counterparts to implement spill prevention and response protocols. The United States should also consider ways to strengthen its own capabilities in the region, such as addressing its infrastructure gap through adequate investment and training. 

Fisheries Management

As a result of rising sea and air temperatures and declining sea ice coverage, profound changes are underway in the distribution and behavior of many Arctic species, including some commercially valued fish and marine invertebrates. 

Many Western nations are connected to Russia by virtue of shared wildlife populations and fish stocks. The Arctic is home to two of the largest whitefish fisheries in the world, both of which are transboundary stocks that require co-management with Russia: the Barents Sea cod fishery (shared by Norway and Russia) and the Bering Sea walleye pollock fishery (shared by the United States and Russia). Given the tremendous economic value of these fisheries, it is in the interest of both Russia and its neighboring countries to work together to monitor the impacts of climate change and implement management measures that will ensure a sustainable harvest.

In the Bering Sea, the United States and Russia have cooperated for thirty years by sharing information about shared fish stocks, including pollock. The challenges of managing the pollock fishery, valued at billions of dollars annually, are daunting. A 2020 study by American and Russian scientists demonstrated that warming temperatures have led to significant shifts in Alaska pollock distribution patterns. Altered wind patterns and ocean currents, combined with the sporadic loss of the so-called “cold pool” which serves as a barrier to movement for some species, means Alaska pollock are migrating northward and mixing with Russian stocks. Understanding the implications of this phenomenon would require joint research on both sides of the Bering Sea maritime boundary, but such an initiative is currently impossible due to the disruption in communication and diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia.

In the Barents Sea, since the mid-twentieth century, commercial fishing patterns have undergone significant changes and transitioned from small-scale coastal operations to large-scale offshore fisheries. This shift has notably impacted fish stocks, leading to a decline in species such as Norwegian spring-spawning herring, the capelin, and northeast Arctic cod - potentially the world's largest cod stock. Currently Norway and Russia are maintaining their joint management approach to the Barents Sea cod population, through a bilateral fisheries commission established in the 1970s.

The 2018 Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement remains an active forum for communication between Western and Russian fisheries scientists. The agreement focuses on the high seas portion of the Arctic Ocean, establishing a research plan to understand the ecosystem in advance of opening the area to commercial fishing. Parties to the agreement are Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Iceland, and the United States, as well as China, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union. Through this instrument,  these nations have agreed to observe a moratorium on fishing in the region until sufficient scientific data is available to support sustainable fisheries management. Such a decision is a hallmark of the precautionary approach to management and a rarity in the history of environmental legislation. Despite the war in Ukraine, all parties are continuing to meet in person, a positive example of international cooperation in the increasingly tense geopolitics of the Arctic. 

Addressing the Climate Crisis

The Arctic plays a major role in regulating Earth’s climate. Arctic ice and snow, on both sea and land, reflect sunlight. When that ice and snow melts, more solar energy is absorbed, creating a feedback loop in the global climate system that increases temperatures. Sea ice retreat is also contributing to increased coastal erosion, ocean acidification, and shifts in global weather patterns and ocean currents. Melting glaciers and ice sheets on land, coupled with warming ocean temperatures, are driving sea-level rise.

The global nature of climate change means that solutions must be developed through international collaboration, including with Russia. Consider the example of permafrost thaw. Permafrost thaw - perennially frozen soil - releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere as it thaws. With approximately twice as much carbon in permafrost as there is currently in the atmosphere, permafrost emissions could reduce remaining global carbon budgets by as much as 20%. At the local level, Arctic communities are feeling the consequences of permafrost thaw, as roads buckle, buildings subside, homes fall into rivers and the sea, sewerage pools rupture, and other infrastructure collapses. By mid-century, 55% of Arctic coastal zone infrastructure will be under threat due to permafrost thaw. Some communities are considering relocation, which is very costly. 

There is an urgency to understand these phenomena more thoroughly and to develop risk management strategies. But gaining a full picture of what is happening with Arctic permafrost is impossible without Russia, which encompasses roughly half of the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost zone. Thus, renewed and expanded scientific partnerships with Russian entities on research, on permafrost thaw and other climate issues, should be a priority. 

An Unsolved Question but Some Consensus

As our group discussed these thematic areas and listened to commentary from Arctic experts,, there was general consensus that the enormity of climate change and the transboundary nature of wildlife, ecosystems, and Indigenous cultures require some form of continued collaboration with Russia. However, we continue to struggle with the moral question. One student ventured that, “Science is science, and politics is politics.” But should science cooperation exist in a vacuum and proceed despite the illegal behavior of partner countries? 

In issuing sanctions on Russia and halting cooperation between government entities and Russian scientists, Western countries essentially decided that the answer to this question is a firm “no.” However, the rupture in partnerships and information flow is likely to have impacts, potentially long-lasting ones, which will harm Western nations’ abilities to manage important food sources and to protect people from accidents, pollution, and climate change. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Williams, Margaret and Viktoria Waldenfels.“Transboundary Arctic Issues at Stake.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 28, 2024.