Top diplomats from eight Arctic countries will meet today to set down rules for opening the vast region to fishing, tourism, oil and mineral exploration as global warming melts the ice.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her colleagues from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden will gather in Greenland’s tiny capital of Nuuk to discuss how to manage the area’s development while protecting its fragile ecosystem.
With its capital of 16,000 people, Greenland will be represented by Denmark, which handles foreign affairs for the sprawling self-ruled territory of 65,000 inhabitants neighboring northeastern Canada.
Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the gathering is historic, in part because it is the first time a US secretary of state will attend the ministerial talks.
It “is a historic turning point to deepen and strengthen international cooperation in the Arctic as we seek to meet the dramatic challenges of the equivalent of a melting continent over the next several decades,” she said.
Clinton’s deputy Jim Steinberg said the seventh biennial ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council — composed of the eight countries and the region’s indigenous groups — also marks another step away from the Cold War.
“We want to send a strong message that in the post-Cold War world the Arctic is a region of cooperation, not conflict,” he told a gathering hosted by the CSIS think tank in Washington.
“By working together to ensure the safety of human life in a newly emerging region of human activity we can show in particular that Russia and the United States are key actors in helping to propel cooperation on core issues,” he said.
Clinton and her counterparts are due to sign an Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, which the US State Department said would be the first binding international agreement among the eight Arctic states.
During talks in Iceland in December, the ministers drafted an agreement that divides the Arctic into specific search and rescue areas, with each nation legally responsible for its own territory.
Icelandic officials said such an agreement was all the more important as an increasing number of people now sail through the Arctic as waterways open up with the melting ice.
In August last year, a Russian oil tanker set off for China on a previously impassable route through the Arctic Ocean. Cruises with tourists are also venturing into the Arctic, particularly around the US state of Alaska.
Earlier this month, scientists said that warming in the Arctic is occurring at twice the global average and is on track to lift sea levels by up to 1.6m by 2100, a far steeper jump than predicted a few years ago.
Steinberg said Washington wants the Nuuk talks to launch a task force designed to negotiate an instrument for handling Arctic oil spills.
Washington also sees the potential for new fisheries to emerge as the ice retreats, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries David Balton said.