Sun, Aug 26, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Research booms in Arctic village

A battle is raging for control of ocean tracts thought to be replete with fossil fuels

By David Adam  /  THE GUARDIAN , NY-ALESUND, NORWAY

Lying barely 1,040km from the North Pole and shrouded in freezing darkness for several months of the year, the Norwegian islands of Svalbard make an unlikely property hotspot. Yet at Ny-Alesund, a tiny former coal-mining settlement on the west side, an international boom is under way.

The Chinese have moved in, bringing with them two marble lions that stand guard outside their Arctic Yellow River research station, and so too have Japan and South Korea. Scientists from India's first expedition to the Arctic are poised to join them. In June, a visiting delegation from Washington talked of beefing up US interests at Ny-Alesund, while the Russians are in negotiations.

Should, as some on Svalbard expect, the two former cold war superpowers move in, they will join established bases run by Norway, Holland, France, Germany and Britain.

On the surface, the multinational invasion of Ny-Alesund -- little more than a bumpy airstrip and a scattering of colorful wooden buildings -- is in the name of science. Experts who visit Svalbard are in an ideal position to study the atmosphere, glaciers and the region's unique wildlife.

The Svalbard islands have become a popular summer tourist destination, particularly with Britons. Last month a party of 17 were injured when their ship got too close to a melting glacier.

But for the growing international community turning the islands into a base, there is another agenda -- the region's oil and gas reserves.

"An awful lot of the reason that countries are here is flag waving," said Nick Cox, an Arctic and Antarctic veteran who runs the British station at Ny-Alesund for the government-funded Natural Environment Research Council.

"The Arctic has become very important politically and that will only increase the pressure for countries to be represented,"he said.

The Chinese lions face east, but the real story is to the north. This month the Russians fired the latest shots in a long-running battle for control over huge tracts of the Arctic Ocean surrounding the North Pole, below which oil and gas is believed to lie.

Canada and Denmark are preparing similar claims, which rely on showing that a chain of underwater mountains that runs across the region are connected to their respective continental shelves.

Norway is convinced the sea around Svalbard also harbors reserves of oil and gas. And as the frozen cover of ice that once protected the ocean from drill ships retreats further north -- this year looks set for a record low -- nations are jostling for position to exploit them. Several oil companies already sponsor research in the region.

Kim Holmen, head of research at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said: "Everything on Svalbard is sticky. It is all about politics and there are other dimensions that must be considered."

UNUSUAL CLAUSE

Norway was granted sovereignty of the Svalbard archipelago, which is 500km off its north coast, in 1925, but an unusual clause grants other nations equal rights to its natural resources. Fast-forward nearly a century to Norway's present claims that the agreement covers terrestrial matters only, not the anticipated offshore fossil-fuel bounty, which it argues will be inside its territorial waters.

Other countries, including Britain, take a different view and the UK Foreign Office sparked a minor diplomatic row last autumn when it failed to invite Norway to a meeting with the US and Russia to discuss the future of the islands.

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