The Arctic could become the next great international battleground for resources, with melting icecaps opening new shipping routes, fishing grounds and, most significantly, some of the world's richest and as yet unexplored oil and gas deposits.
So far, the United States, Russia and other nations near the North Pole are trying to work together. They'll take a baby step in that direction this week by agreeing to the first international treaty covering the Arctic Sea, a coordinated search-and-rescue pact that will grow in importance as more cargo and cruise ships start navigating the cold waters.
"We want to send a message in a post-Cold War world that the Arctic is a region of cooperation, not conflict," said Jim Steinberg, the deputy U.S. secretary of state.
The message will be a cautious one, however.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will sign the deal with their counterparts from seven other countries in Greenland on Thursday. But the biennial Arctic Council meeting will tiptoe around some tougher questions of cooperating on global warming as well as competing territorial claims and what to do in the event of a catastrophic oil spill.
Four years ago, Russia staked its claim to supremacy in the Arctic and to control as much as a quarter of the world's oil and gas reserves, planting a titanium flag on the ocean floor and arguing that an underwater ridge connected the country directly to the North Pole. The United States does not recognize the Russian assertion and has its own claims, along with Denmark, Norway and Canada, while companies from ExxonMobil Corp. to Royal Dutch Shell Plc want to get in on the action.
Washington, for its part, still has yet to ratify the United Nations' 1982 Law of the Sea treaty regulating the ocean's use for military, transportation and mineral extraction purposes. One hundred sixty countries have acceded to the pact and the Bush and Obama administrations have lent their support. But opposition in the Senate means the U.S. could be frozen out of some of the spoils.
Speaking Monday at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, Steinberg acknowledged some differences between countries that wouldn't be resolved this week. "No country is going to be successful here trying to assert territorial control without working with others," he said.
The council is comprised of the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. It meets amid a flurry of reports outlining the far-reaching changes that are affecting 4 million people living in northerly frontiers from Alaska to Scandinavia to Siberia, as well as those far beyond.
Research points to ice melting faster than expected and global sea levels rising by up to 5 feet this century; soot from truck engines, aircraft emissions, forest fires and fossil fuel-burning stoves contributing to the thaw; and possibly a 25 percent jump in mercury emissions this decade. These would threaten polar bears, whales, seals and the mainly indigenous communities who hunt those animals for food.
The warming of the Arctic points to an essential paradox for policymakers: In the short-term, it could open up vast amounts of wealth to be exploited, but over time dramatically alter life as we know it. Rising sea levels are expected to cause awesome damage _ from inundated small islands to possible flooding of New York City's subways. Low-lying areas from Bangladesh to Florida could be among the hardest hit.
With soot, or black carbon, the United Nations has urged cuts in emissions, citing the threat to human health from inhalation and warming of the polar regions. And two years ago, Clinton said dealing with soot and other short-lived climate forces like methane and low-lying ozone offered a unique opportunity for rapid progress to slow the warming.
These pollutants are different from the carbon dioxide emissions that have divided nations over more than two decades of fractious talks and that the Obama administration has been unable to get Congress to limit. These persist in the atmosphere for only a short time but are blamed for up to a third of the human-caused warming in the Arctic. They can be reduced by shifting away from dirty diesel engines, agricultural burning and hydrofluorocarbons.
Yet governments have done little, even if the U.S and Canada proposed Monday to phase down their use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas used in consumer products that ironically was promoted as a substitute for ozone-depleting chemicals. And this week's meeting will probably only instruct countries to increase their individual conservation efforts.
Officials hope the good will and precedent set by the search-and-rescue agreement will gradually bring nations together on more sensitive topics.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point person on the Gulf oil spill, said the treaty ensures that a mission to rescue missing or stranded people won't get bogged down in politics.
Coordinating the response to an oil spill on the magnitude of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico would be far more difficult. The region's ice mass and cold waters would make big booms, chemical dispersants and other techniques for removing oil far less effective. And with no roads connecting remote coastal towns, storms and fog that can ground aircraft, and no deep-water ports for ships, a response on the scale needed last year to clean up the mess would be unfathomable. That burden would rest to an even greater degree on the company doing the drilling.
David Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said countries would advance discussions this week on gas and oil drilling, and how to deal with the potential for blowouts and spills. Steinberg said a task force would be set up specifically for spill response, and the council would mature into a full-fledged political organization for the future of the region.
Environmentalists aren't fully on board. They say the organization's disaster preparedness is different from disaster prevention.
"Basically, once you have a spill in the Arctic, it's virtually impossible to clean up," said Erika Rosenthal, an attorney for the Oakland-based environmental group Earthjustice. The organization isn't advocating for a blanket ban on Arctic oil drilling, but rather tight constraints on how and where companies can operate.
"The Arctic is largely unexplored," Rosenthal said. "This is perhaps the only opportunity left on the planet to plan something well from the beginning."