Working in the Bering Sea region isn't for the weak of heart. The temperatures are often frigid, the landscape is vast and there is no easy way to get there. And, if you're like Margaret and you have actually been stranded in Siberia, you also need a good bit of patience. Fortunately for WWF, it is her dream job. She even gets to live in Alaska.
Encompassing both the marine environment of the Bering Sea and the terrestrial landscape of Russia's Kamchatka province, Margaret's region is filled with environmental challenges. Heavy shipping traffic, offshore oil drilling, wildlife poaching, human-animal conflict and overfishing all imperil the region's sensitive ecosystem. And global warming - the cause of shrinking sea ice, rising temperatures in salmon rivers and many other ecosystem changes - is an overarching concern.
As problem-plagued as the region may be, Margaret is optimistic for its future. WWF is helping to organize polar bear patrols to minimize human-wildlife conflict - stimulated in large part by global warming - and working to create a series of protected areas along the coast to reduce disturbance of the bears and their denning sites. "The problems are many but so are the opportunities. As a conservationist, it's just an exciting place to work."
“Every American should visit Alaska...but not all at the same time.”
The document was signed in Fairbanks at the Arctic Council's biennial ministerial meeting, the capstone event in the two-year U.S. chairmanship. It promises to break down barriers that have slowed cross-border research, made studies more costly and left research, at times, inconsistent in different jurisdictions.
It is the third binding agreement ever reached by the 20-year-old Arctic Council, though it will need a follow-up treaty to go into force. Previous council binding agreements established cooperative relationships on search and rescue and oil-spill response.
The agreement signed Thursday will ease "the movement of scientists, scientific equipment and, importantly, data sharing" across the Arctic, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the ministerial meeting.
The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation was led by the United States and Russia and is considered a bright spot in a relationship that has been sorely strained in recent years over Russia's actions in Ukraine, its Syria policies and human rights record. It was in the works for several years, but the timing is now awkward.
It comes as furor is mounting over Russian influence on the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and questions about the president's relationship to Russia prior to his election.
And, council events have been overshadowed by Trump's environmental policies.
Rapid climate warming has transformed the far north, creating some dire problems that permeate nearly all Arctic issues and the council's work. But Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax and his administration is seeking to dismantle U.S. government efforts to address it, including federally funded climate science.
Still, council members have been emphasizing the science agreement's positive aspects. It demonstrates how the Arctic is a region of peace and how the council works to promote the common good, despite disputes elsewhere in the world, including among its members, they said.
"It's good and it's important. It's another example of the Arctic Council fostering international agreements," said Margaret Williams, U.S. managing director of the Arctic program at the World Wildlife Fund, one of the designated council observers.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a day after a controversial Oval Office meeting with Trump and Tillerson, referred to the council's role as a conflict-free zone.
"Russia has been doing its best to ensure that the Arctic develops as a region of peace, stability and cooperation," he said in interpreted remarks to the ministerial meeting.
But one well-known Russian-born Arctic scientist said he is skeptical about the real-world effects of the science agreement and "nice words" from the Russian government.
Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the world's top permafrost scientists, said Russia has been the source of the problems for Arctic scientists. The Putin regime is increasingly repressive, and the science agreement is unlikely to counter that, he said.
"It may change some protocols, some requirements for paperwork. It may make it easier. But it will not make easier this whole underground movement," Romanovsky said.
"It could be very great on paper. But in reality …" he said, trailing off. "The greatest paper, the greatest thing on paper is the Russian constitution. It's great. But you see what they do — they just ignore it."
Romanovsky has had his own brush with Russian repression. In 1997, he and UAF colleague Larry Hinzman, in Yakutia to work on permafrost and hydrology work, were detained by authorities.
"We were not formally arrested. But we were kind of, how do you say, house detained. And we were interrogated by KGB," he said. "It was pretty scary."
Romanovsky, who holds both U.S. and Russian citizenship, travels at least once a year to work on his permafrost research. He is scheduled to travel again in the next couple of weeks.
Some other scientists have been intimidated and are reluctant to work in Russia, he said. So far, that is not the case for him. "But it may change any time," he said.