Russian Arctic Is Experiencing Dramatic Ice Loss

This has serious consequences for humans and animals, including polar bears.

polar bear on ice

SeppFriedhuber/Getty Images

The Arctic is warming three times faster than the global average, and this is taking a toll on the region’s ice. A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface this summer provided an example of the extent of this loss for the glaciers and ice caps of two archipelagos in the Russian Arctic. 

“The most important finding from our study is that we managed to use satellite observations to measure the changes in volume of ice across a large number of glaciers in the Russian Arctic between 2010 and 2018 with a great level of detail,” study co-author Dr. Paul Tepes of the University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences tells Treehugger in an email.

Five Million Pools a Year of Melt

The researchers demonstrated a dramatic amount of ice loss. Over the eight-year study period, the Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya archipelagos lost 11.4 billion tonnes of ice a year, a University of Edinburgh press release explained. That’s enough to fill nearly five million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year or sink the Netherlands under seven feet of water.

The researchers were able to obtain such detailed results using data collected by the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 research satellite. They then used maps and timelines to determine when and where ice was gained and lost on the islands over the study period, Tepes explains.

The goal wasn’t only to calculate the extent of the ice loss, but also to determine what factors might be driving it. The researchers compared the ice loss with data on climate trends such as air and ocean temperatures. They found that, on Novaya Zemlya, there was a more or less direct relationship between ice loss and warmer air and ocean temperatures. On Severnaya Zemlya, the study authors wrote that ocean warming was likely the “key factor driving dynamic ice loss,” as warmer Atlantic waters circulated along the Eurasian continental margin. 

“The high quantity and quality of satellite data available means that we were also able to investigate the climatic mechanisms that trigger the observed ice losses. [This] is an important achievement, as it helps predict future ice loss in the same region or elsewhere in the Arctic,” Tepes says.

"Nothing New"

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that the Russian Arctic is changing dramatically. On this level, Greenpeace Russia Climate and Energy head Vasily Yablokov tells Treehugger that the study is "nothing new": "There is a stable trend of reduction in the ice cover in the Arctic since the '80s," he says. 

This unfreezing affects more than the glaciers and ice caps that were the focus of the recent study. Rivers are thawing earlier and freezing later, the permafrost is thawing, and sea ice is disappearing to the extent that parts of the Northern Sea Route are almost ice-free by the end of the summer. 

All of this has serious consequences for both wildlife and human communities. Polar bears, for example, are losing their hunting grounds as the sea ice recedes, which forces them to fast for longer and increases the chance that they will wander into human settlements in search of food. This is exactly what occurred in a town on Novaya Zemlya in early 2019, when an invasion of at least 52 bears forced the island chain to declare a state of emergency. In the broader region, thawing permafrost has caused the ground to sink, damaging roads and buildings and contributing to a 2020 oil spill that has been called the worst such disaster in the Russian Arctic in modern times.

The particular archipelagos studied by Tepes and his team are sparsely populated, he notes. Severnaya Zemlya is entirely uninhabited by civilians. Novaya Zemlya was home to both Russian families and the Nenets Indigenous group, but these populations were resettled after World War Two so that the island chain could be used for nuclear testing. Some settlements, however, have been restored since, as the case of the polar bear invasion makes clear.

“In general,” Tepes tells Treehugger, “climatic changes have indeed dramatic effects on local communities, the wildlife, and sea life across the entire Arctic and Subarctic. The local inhabitants of these remote places have a very deep, cross-generational connection with their environment. They rely very much on lifelong observation of sea ice and weather conditions for their activities and subsistence. The rapidly changing conditions put enormous pressure on these communities and the resources they use.”

A "Mirror for Global Emissions"

Both Tepes and Yablokov agree that global, national, and local action is required to meet the challenges facing Arctic communities in the wake of climate change. 

“The rapid changes affecting the glaciers of the Russian Arctic and their environment represent great challenges with clear consequences both locally and globally,” Tepes tells Treehugger. “Addressing the global implications of Arctic and global warming in general is a major challenge because, in an ideal situation, there would be worldwide coordinated measures for the implementation of effective mitigation and adaptation strategies, which is very difficult to achieve given the vested interests of each country.” 

Yablokov also calls for coordinated international action to protect the Arctic, calling it a mirror for global emissions. “If we want to save and protect the Arctic, we should reduce emissions everywhere,” he says. 

He also argues that Russia should take a leading role in calling for climate action and transforming its own economy away from fossil fuels. Because the country controls more of the Arctic coastline than any other nation, it has a vested interest in protecting the region for future generations.  

So far this has not been the case. The country has plans to explore the Arctic Ocean for additional oil and gas, and the Nord Stream pipeline would bring Russian fossil gas into Europe. But Yablokov contends there is hope, because the Russian government has reversed its official tune on the climate crisis within the past year, moving from denial to calls for action. If the rhetoric can change so quickly, he says, then beliefs and habits can follow. “I hope that we will see some changes,” he says. 

In the meantime, Yablokov recommends strengthening Arctic infrastructure, improving environmental regulations in the region, and conducting more research into how to help impacted communities. 

Tepes agrees that detailed research should play a greater role in crafting local and global policies. 

“Unfortunately,” he tells Treehugger, “policymakers often fail to propose coping strategies that are effective both locally and at the global level. To achieve this, it would be important, for example, to promote, use, and disseminate information that is sound and based on measurable facts such as satellite measurements, unbiased scientific literature, and hands-on experience and observations provided by scientists and the local communities. The latter should also be taken more into account by leaders since the lives of local people are directly impacted.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Arctic Assessment Report Shows Faster Rate of Warming." World Meteorological, 2021.

  2. Tepes, Paul, et al. "Accelerating Ice Mass Loss Across Arctic Russia in Response to Atmospheric Warming, Sea Ice Decline, and Atlantification of the Eurasian Arctic Shelf Seas." Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, vol. 126, no. 7, 2021, doi:10.1029/2021jf006068

  3. "Russian Arctic Warming Leads to Major Ice Loss." The University of Edinburgh.

  4. "Polar Bears Struggle as Sea Ice Declines." NASA.