Russia's environment ministry has ordered the urgent evacuation of 16 scientists from a research station on an Arctic ice floe near Canada because the ice around it is disintegrating at an alarming rate, giving the station little chance of survival.
The emergency has sparked a wider debate among Russian Arctic researchers over how to continue their work amid rapidly changing climate conditions, and in an atmosphere in which the race for newly uncovered Arctic resources has become one of the most politically charged issues on the international agenda.
"It's getting harder and harder to find a proper block of ice to sustain one of these stations," says Viktor Boyarsky, a former polar explorer and current director of the Russian State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg.
"There are fewer suitable ice locations, and they are much more mobile than in the past. The SP-40 expedition [being evacuated] lasted barely 9 months, and there are no proper ice floes in the area that they can move to. We'll go on sending these expeditions, but it's going to be much more costly. The best idea is to have a station that lasts for two or three years, but that's probably a thing of the past," he says.
The drifting "North Pole" SP-40 station, which is one of Russia's main field bases for studying all aspects of the Arctic environment, had been calculated to be solid and able to support work through to the end of September. It was established nine months ago, but the team of permanent researchers arrived only last month.
However, the ice floe suddenly began to break up as the surrounding icepack melted at a rate that surprised scientists, forcing the decision to abandon the base.
"The deterioration of the ice has put at risk the station's further work and the lives of its staff," the environmental ministry said in a statement.
According to the official RIA-Novosti agency, the nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal will be dispatched to remove the station, which is now drifting near Canada's economic zone in the polar region. The Yamal is expected to reach the stranded scientists by about June 10.
Arctic specialists say that the drifting research stations are one of their most valuable information-gathering tools, but they have always been a risky endeavor. Several have been abandoned due to unforeseen ice conditions in the past.
However, this time most point to the accelerating meltoff of Arctic ice due to climate change as the prime source of the miscalculations about SP-40's survivability. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the past 10 years have been the warmest on record and Arctic ice sheets reached their lowest level on record last September.
Russia has been ahead of most other countries in accepting the climate change data that foretells the formerly icebound Arctic is going to be open water in future summers – and has embraced the strategic and economic advantages associated with that.
They include a northeast shipping route over the top of Siberia that will cut as much as two weeks off sea voyages between the far east and Europe, and the opening up of vast new fisheries, undersea petroleum deposits, and other hitherto inaccessible resources.
Russia aims to annex a vast zone of formerly international territory in the Arctic as its own "economic zone" and is negotiating with other northern states to divide the region up peacefully. But, just in case, it has also established a special Arctic military command with a permanent rapid deployment force.
"In a competition for resources, it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that could destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies," then-President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2008.
The chief of Russia's drifting ice research program, Vladimir Sokolov, says stations like SP-40 are about scientific research and nothing else, and are especially important for scientists to determine the rate and extent of climate change.
"For our planet, the poles are the refrigerators and the equator is the heater. The processes of exchange in the atmosphere and the oceans is what redistributes heat, so that the polar zones don't freeze completely and the equator doesn't become a desert…. Expeditions like this are crucial because they enable us to follow the circulation processes in the atmosphere and the oceans, and estimate the impact of changes in the Arctic. We need to find a way to continue these studies," he says.
If current trends continue, Russia will have to start building artificial platforms that can withstand Arctic ice conditions, experts say.
"We've been talking about this for the past 20 years, but now it's becoming really critical," says Viktor Dmitriyev, scientific secretary of the official Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg.
"It's a tricky technical problem. You need a platform that cannot be crushed by ice and will be virtually unsinkable to provide a base for scientists to live and work over long periods. It will be expensive. But we spend so much money on projects like the Sochi Olympics, it's to be hoped that we can find a bit of spare money for something as important as this," he adds.