WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and other nations face many challenges and opportunities in the Arctic, a frozen frontier where melting ice is creating new shipping lanes, opening up access to massive oil, gas and mineral deposits, threatening coastal villages and posing possible future security threats.
Key questions and answers about stepped-up activity on the tip-top of the Earth:
Q: Why is the Arctic a key new international interest?
A: Countries around the world increasingly are looking to the Arctic for new shipping lanes created by the melting ice and as a source of natural resources. The U.S. Geological Survey says the region contains 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of its oil. Temperatures are rising, sea ice is melting, some shoreline communities are threatened, and animals and the environment are being affected. During summer months, more ships are using the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia. Europeans see new shipping routes to China that in the summer are 40 percent faster than traveling through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. The Northwest Passage between Greenland and Canada also could significantly speed cargo traveling between the Dutch shipping hub of Rotterdam and ports in California. There are also stepped-up oil and gas exploration and scientific expeditions, and more cruise ships are plying its waters.
Q: How fast is the Arctic melting?
A: The rapid melting in the Arctic eased up this year, but the government says global warming is still dramatically altering the top of the world, reducing the number of reindeer and shrinking snow and ice, while increasing certain fish and extending the growing season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says overall Arctic temperatures did not soar quite as high this year as in the past. But NOAA says one year doesn't change the long-term trend of warming in the Arctic. More ominous are long-term trends. NOAA says average Arctic temperatures have increased 3.6 degrees since the 1960s, rising twice as fast as the rest of the world. Fish species are moving north, permafrost is melting and shrubs are greening in ways that haven't been seen before.
Q: Is there a chance that the Arctic will become militarized?
A: Generally, all the Arctic nations — the United States, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada and Denmark, through the semiautonomous territory of Greenland — have expressed a desire to keep the Arctic a peaceful place. All eight, as members of the Arctic Council, have signed on to agreements to cooperate on search and rescue activities and possible oil spills, but increased military operations in the Arctic ultimately could create conflict in the region. Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. Navy's capability in the Arctic was a key reason for Russia to increase its presence in the region. Putin said he doesn't envision a conflict between Russia and the United States, but his blunt remarks reflect a wariness of U.S. intentions in the Arctic. Other countries also are increasing their military presence in the Arctic.
Q: How are countries competing for economic resources?
A: Coastal nations already have the right to stake claim to their continental shelf 200 miles beyond their shores. If they are party to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, they can submit a claim for additional territory stretching out even farther. The U.S. has not signed the treaty so it cannot stake claim to additional territory. The White House Arctic strategy report said America's extended continental shelf claim could extend more than 600 miles from the northern coast of Alaska.
Russia submitted a claim in 2001, saying that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,200-mile, undersea mountain range, is an extension of its territory. Moscow is to resubmit its application with more scientific data next year. Norway already has made its claim. Denmark plans to lay claim to the North Pole and other areas in the Arctic when it submits its claim next year. Earlier this month, Canada applied to extend its seabed claims in the Atlantic Ocean, including some preliminary Arctic claims, but it wants more time to prepare a claim that would include the North Pole.