An ice jam contributed to flooding in Galena, Alaska, in 2013.

An ice jam contributed to flooding in Galena, Alaska, in 2013.

Alaska DOT&PF/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

U.S.-Russia tensions put a chill on ice disaster research effort

As tensions between the United States and Russia remain high, funding for a program to share knowledge between the two nations on disasters known as ice jam floods has been thrown into disarray by U.S. sanctions. Now, scientists are going hat in hand to collect funds to save the effort.

“Sometimes political decisions [trump] scientific cooperation,” says Tuyara Gavrileva, a social scientist with the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, Russia. “The law is the law.”    

Ice jam floods generally occur in the Arctic in the spring, when rapid warming can break up river ice, creating obstructions and flooding of nearby settlements. The new joint research project, run by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), and Gavrileva’s university, focuses on two towns that  both experienced catastrophic floods in May 2013: Galena, Alaska, and Edeytsy, Russia. Most public infrastructure in Edeytsy, in the Sakha republic, was destroyed in the floods, and some 1300 people were displaced. In Galena, floods drove 60% of residents from their homes.

This past March, John Eichelberger, a UAF geologist, submitted a grant proposal for the project to the U.S.-Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program, run by the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The peer program supports joint projects related to environmental, civic, health, or youth issues. In June, Eichelberger received a preliminary notice of approval for the grant, which included support for U.S. experts to travel to Sakha, and for Russians to later travel to Alaska. That’s particularly crucial for Russian scientists, Gavrileva says. “My university does not have sufficient funds to finance a trip of several specialists [to] the United States,” she says.

But in late August, embassy officials told Eichelberger in an email that, essentially, he couldn’t get U.S. government funds to support the Russian scientists’ travel. Eichelberger said he was “shocked” to receive the message. He resubmitted his grant, omiting support for the Russians to visit the United States. The revised grant was accepted late last month, so now the program is back on, but Eichelberger is fundraising to make up roughly $30,000. He says he has raised half that amount so far by tapping other funders interested in climate change.

“We have a lot to learn from the Russians on the Arctic flood issue,” Eichelberger says, noting that Russian scientists have since the 1990s been experimenting with various mitigation efforts, such as cutting ice in the spring, or putting homes on stilts. “It’s wonderful working with the Russians.”

Although he says the effect of politics on international science is has “disheartened” him, he sees the episode with rose-tinted glasses. “The State Department in general and U.S. embassy in Moscow in particular are making the best of a bad situation,” he says. “They could have canceled the Peer-to-Peer program entirely.”

Peer-to-Peer is only one of several joint programs that have been disrupted by political strife between the United States and Russia. Last year, after Russia intervened in Ukraine, the United States suspended a presidential initiative called the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, meant to foster partnership between government officials on areas including energy, environment, and health. The suspension of that program led to the cancelation of a planned international workshop on natural disasters in the Arctic that Eichelberger had helped organize.