Our Burning Planet


‘A crime against science’ — Russian missile in Kyiv misses globally critical climate server by ‘15m’

‘A crime against science’ — Russian missile in Kyiv misses globally critical climate server by ‘15m’
An upclose view of a Ukraine Antarctic expedition, caught behind shards of glass. (Photo: Aleksandr Zakletsky, Yulia Kryvytska)

Vowing ‘to reconstruct, but not forgive’, Ukraine’s polar head office was rocked during the renewed spate of brutal attacks by Russia this week. Relieved staff told Daily Maverick that servers holding the longest-running ozone and climate records in the Antarctic, a region threatened by global heating, survived the impact.

Ukraine’s Antarctic scientific vessel, Noosfera, may have found temporary refuge in the port of Cape Town. But Kyiv’s national polar premises were thrown into disarray when Russian missiles struck critical infrastructure and civilian areas across Ukraine on Monday. 

There were no victims among staff of the National Antarctic Scientific Centre, noted the state agency responsible for executing polar interests. 

Even so, on Thursday the centre shared social media images of chaos sewn in its headquarters in central Kyiv. The force of a missile strike had collapsed ceilings and damaged walls. Floors, chairs and desks were covered in shattered glass. Team photos of scientists posing during Antarctic expeditions had flown off walls, landing among ripped-off window blinds.

Small penguin mascots perch on a 2021 scientific annual at the Ukraine National Antarctic Scientific Centre. (Photo: Aleksandr Zakletsky, Yulia Kryvytska)

“It was excruciating to see broken group photos of Ukrainian Antarctic expeditions. As our guests could see, following the tradition, all group photos of the wintering teams were put on the wall in the cabinet of the director of the centre,” the centre reported, but said the displays could be restored.

Wearing a crocheted cap in Ukrainian yellow and blue, a tiny penguin mascot perched on a 2021 scientific yearbook.

“We were finally able to enter our premises,” the centre explained. “All the windows and glass were knocked out by a powerful blast wave — the impact was so strong that pieces of broken glass, like daggers, smashed into the wooden door. Internal concrete walls were cracked.”

In an email, Olena Marushevska, the centre’s press officer, wrote that the “source of the blast was a missile hitting the motorway nearby — 15m away maybe. It was a 9m deep hole there.”

Although the centre’s website, which has been accessible throughout the war, appeared to be down on Thursday, “all priceless data on servers and unique paper archives are preserved”.

Marushevska also noted a historic data set inherited from the UK’s former West Antarctic Faraday station — established in 1947 but donated to Ukraine in 1996 — was not destroyed. The station was renamed Vernadsky, after the mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky.

“We have the longest data in Antarctica on measuring the ozone hole and climate. Thank God the attack did not affect this work because the servers with all the information have survived,” the relieved Marushevska wrote.

“Our exclusive two-metre penguin has survived as well, so there will be a chance to see it at our future exhibitions,” the centre said on social media. 

To “alert the international community” of “military crimes of Russians”, staff serving Ukraine in the freezing, inhospitable Antarctic after months of war on domestic turf also sent a communiqué to fellow research stations about the strikes.

It is a crime not only against civilians but also against science itself, including Antarctic research, which is a part of world science, the centre added. 

The communiqué, emailed this week from Vernadsky station in West Antarctica to other stations on the continent. It was redacted to protect the email addresses of national research stations. Source: Ukraine National Antarctic Scientific Centre

Amid scattered Antarctic memorabilia, this window was blown out over an office desk. (Photo: Aleksandr Zakletsky, Yulia Kryvytska)

Both Ukraine and Russia are among 29 decision-maker states under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, an exclusive club of world powers claiming to preserve the entire Antarctic continent and the surrounding Southern Ocean for “peaceful” activities. 

The treaty bans nuclear tests, military activities and owning land in the area. It also promotes tourism and enshrines the freedom of scientific investigation in a region facing record climate challenges — this year alone, sea ice has plunged to record lows, summer temperatures were reported to soar up to 40°C above average and climate researchers  warned that Thwaites, the “wild card” glacier, is hanging on “by its fingernails”. If it rips off West Antarctica, it is predicted to raise global sea levels by a few metres over time.

Historic tensions

Yet, Russia’s February 24 invasion has caused historic tensions within a prestigious science agreement celebrated for protecting the Antarctic against human bloodshed throughout its 60-odd-year history. 

In May, the centre’s Antarctic director, Evgen Dykyi, told us that Russia’s war had already spilt onto the ice, thousands of kilometres from Kyiv. A trained Black Sea ecologist and 2014 Donbas war veteran demobilised by disability, Dykyi had spoken ahead of the Noosfera’s Cape Town arrival. Despite the war, she was days away from wrapping her monthslong maiden voyage for Ukraine.

The ecologist explained that the war had “sequestrated” Ukraine’s Antarctic budget and reduced the country’s marine research, which intended to contribute data to marine protected areas repeatedly blocked by Russia and China since 2016. 

Stacked on a bookshelf, a dislodged portrait of a scientist doing fieldwork in the snow. Above it, the roof has caved in. A ruined window frame has been torn to pieces. (Photo: Aleksandr Zakletsky, Yulia Kryvytska)

In a separate interview, Noosfera captain Pavlo Panasyuk said some of his crew had intended “to return to Ukraine for fighting with the Russians”. Panasyuk added: “I cannot do anything about that when people are at the end of their contract. They will go back to Ukraine. Some of our scientists there are running around with Kalashnikovs.”

Unable to return home, the vessel — first delivered to the port of Odesa under a peppercorn agreement with the UK in October 2021 — has been in Cape Town port since the end of May 2022. Less than a week before, at an annual treaty meeting in Berlin from which all media were banned, 25 states, including Ukraine, staged a walkout to show “decisive support for Ukraine in connection with the Russian armed aggression”, Ukraine Antarctic authorities told Daily Maverick. 

In this July webinar recording, reporter Tiara Walters, Antarctic geopolitics specialist Mikaa Mered and leading environment lawyer Cormac Cullinan unpack the guarded world of Antarctic diplomacy.

The members joining the walkout included 24 out of 29 states with decision-making powers, including the US, the UK, EU countries and India, but not China, Peru and South Africa. The latter has adopted a controversial “non-aligned” approach that featured during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s awkward presser with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Pretoria, while treaty states were in Berlin. 

Scholz said that votes with Russia were “intolerable” — but that has not stopped ANC Youth League officials “from observing — and condoning” Moscow’s “sham referendums” in Ukraine; or South Africa from refusing to support this week’s UN resolution condemning those referendums, Daily Maverick diplomatic correspondent Peter Fabricius has reported.

South Africa is one of just 12 founding treaty signatories. An official Antarctic gateway, Cape Town’s port facilities have hosted both Ukraine and Russian polar vessels this year. 

A recent series of Daily Maverick investigations has also shown that Russian vessels have sailed via the port city almost every year since the 1998 Antarctic mining ban to scour the Southern Ocean for oil and gas deposits. South African authorities have repeatedly declined to comment on the matter.

A map flanked by penguins shows West Antarctica, where the Ukraine research station Vernadsky is located. Down the hall, the ceiling has caved in. (Photo: Aleksandr Zakletsky, Yulia Kryvytska)

Meanwhile, both Russia and Ukraine have vowed their Antarctic research expeditions in the 2022/23 summer will continue. Russia is presently building Vostok 2.0, a souped-up research station in East Antarctica comprising 6,783 tons of construction materials shipped through Cape Town. The build is expected to wrap in 2025.

In their social media post on the missile strikes, Ukraine polar staff said they would “work online, continuing support to the current expedition and preparing for the new one”. 

“In this week alone, Russia has fired over 120 missiles into Ukraine. Most of these have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, including museums, churches, monuments, science and sports centres,” said Dzvinka Kachur, honorary president of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa. 

Kachur mourned that the strikes “had not only damaged the centre, which is part of the global Antarctic research on climate change, penguin diversity and genetics of whales, but also took the lives of more civilians, including Oksana Leontyeva, a doctor at the children’s hospital.”

Unbowed, staff have vowed to rebuild after the missile strikes. Here, next to a map of Far South, a flag of Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Centre is held above a fallen monitor and office chaos. (Photo: Aleksandr Zakletsky, Yulia Kryvytska)

Russian polar authorities could not be reached for immediate comment. South African government spokesperson Albi Modise said our request for comment was “noted”.

“We will reconstruct, but will not forgive,” the centre’s post said. “Russia is a terrorist state.” DM/OBP

Editor’s note: This story was updated on 14 October 2022 to reflect that critical climate data survived the Russian missile strike, which reportedly hit a motorway within metres of Ukraine’s Antarctic headquarters in Kyiv. The new version of the story also contains an email sent out from Vernadsky station, alerting stations across the continent of the damaged infrastructure. Since publication, the centre’s website has been restored. 

Absa OBP

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