The Northeast Science Station (NSS) of Cherskii, Russia, founded in 1980 by Zimov and colleagues, is a major research site for studying the role of arctic terrestrial ecosystems in the global carbon cycle. Chapin and colleagues established ties to NSS over 20 years ago. At this time, the need to understand patterns of carbon emissions in the Russian arctic coincided with a political climate that supported collaborative links with Russian scientists. What aspects of this collaboration ensured its longevity and subsequent productivity? How did this influence research on global patterns of carbon flux? We present (i) a brief history of the station; (ii) reflect on key steps that are important in developing successful international collaborations; and (iii) highlight some of the research breakthroughs emanating from the station that underline the synergistic collaborations that were established.
Chapin’s prior training in the U.S. Peace Corps was invaluable in informing his approach to international collaboration. He recognized the importance of identifying and supporting local stakeholders; accepted differing philosophical and cultural world views; and respected his hosts’ knowledge. With regard to the latter, the NSS research and technical staff had a strong empirical understanding of Siberian ecosystems that was coupled with intuition and observations gleaned over many years of living within these ecosystems. The early days of collaboration were filled with spirited give-and-take sessions, especially regarding the challenge of bridging the gap between the more deductive Russian methods and the more inductive approach of Western science. Eventually, a consensus was reached that blended these complimentary paradigms, enabling the establishment of a strong collaborative research program. This led to numerous publications that elucidated key issues of the global carbon cycle that were based on long-term data sets collected by the NSS staff under Zimov’s leadership. Examples include Reynolds’ recoding of the NSS steppe model, which showed the influence of disturbance on carbon cycling and the potential influence of herbivores as drivers of a regime shift in the Arctic at the end of the Pleistocene (Am Nat, 1995: 146); Schuur’s studies of the role of permafrost in the global carbon budget (Science, 2006: 312); and Walter’s research that quantified the importance of methane bubbling from northern lakes as a positive feedback to global warming (Nature, 2006: 443). Chapin’s partnership with the NSS led to positive benefits by advancing our scientific understanding of the global carbon cycle.