The United States, Russia and other nations agreed Thursday to coordinate Arctic search-and-rescue missions, a small step toward international cooperation in a fast-changing frontier threatened by looming fights over resources and military dominion.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the agreement among the eight-nation Arctic Council highlights the growing importance of the Arctic, where climate change is creating new shipping routes, fishing grounds and oil and gas drilling opportunities. Russia, which has laid disputed claim to much Arctic territory, participated in the very limited agreement to help stranded fishermen and the like.
A warming planet could open up vast amounts of wealth to be exploited, but dramatically alter life as we know it. Over the coming decades, rising sea levels are expected to change coastlines and inundate small islands, while altering the habitats of plants and wildlife. Low-lying areas from Bangladesh to Florida could be among the hardest hit.
Clinton said the U.S. and the other countries would pursue new tourism, shipping and industrial avenues "in a smart and sustainable way that preserves the Arctic environment and ecosystems." She said she looked forward to "continued collaboration in the years to come."
The United States has said it wants the cooperation pact with Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland to be a template for agreement on more pressing national security issues.
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. Russia planted a titanium flag on the ocean floor and argued 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. Companies from ExxonMobil Corp. to Royal Dutch Shell plc also want to get in on the action.
"The 21st Century will see a fight for resources, and Russia should not be defeated in this fight," the country's ambassador to NATO, Dmitriy Rogozin, is quoted as saying in a classified U.S. diplomatic cable published Thursday by the WikiLeaks website. "NATO has sensed where the wind comes from. It comes from the North."
Cables relay the Russian view of a cold peace in the Arctic, where "one cannot exclude that in the future there will be a redistribution of power, up to armed intervention," according to Russian Navy chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky. And they warn of "the potential of increased military threats in the Arctic," citing Russian aircraft carrier activity of Norway's coast.
The biennial Arctic Council meeting is tiptoeing around the tougher questions of territorial claims, while looking at ways to lessen the effect of greenhouse gases that are making the Arctic region warm faster than the rest of the world. The countries also are pledging to develop a plan to prevent an oil spill in an environment that would make cleanup a logistical nightmare.
Research points to ice melting faster than expected and global sea levels rising by 2 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 United States 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, and Clinton on Thursday reiterated its importance. But opposition in the Senate means the U.S. could be frozen out of some of the region's spoils.
Other cables released Thursday show the U.S. intensifying its relationship with Denmark's largely autonomous island of Greenland partly to strengthen the relationship and ward off the Chinese, "who have shown increasing interest in Greenland's natural resources."
Greenland is described as "just one big oil strike away" from independence, with U.S. companies poised to share in lucrative deals on the island's west coast, said to rival Alaska's North Slope in oil and gas reserves. Denmark's former foreign minister, meanwhile, jokingly threatened that U.S. inaction on Law of the Seas means "the rest of us will have more to carve up in the Arctic."
Greenlanders are generally optimistic as the government recently allowed a Scottish company to drill just outside of Nuuk. Yet they see the melting ice hurting the hunt for traditional food sources like reindeer and musk ox, said Gorm Vold, a 33-year-old Greenlandic government worker. A giant post box filled with letters to Santa was behind him in the harbor.
"Perhaps Santa Claus will have to move a little further north," Vold joked.