Time running out in fight to protect Arctic

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Chicago (IL) - World leaders need to get their skates on if they are to stop the central Arctic being turned into an industrial wasteland as its sea ice retreats.

In a new policy paper, researchers argue that the chance to establish the central Arctic as an area of peaceful, trans-national governance is disappearing as fast as the ice itself.

The paper was presented by Dr Paul Berkman from the University of Cambridge to the Aspen Commission on Arctic Climate Change in Monaco at the weekend. The Commission includes scientists and policy experts and will make recommendations for the future of international co-operation in the Arctic.

The five Arctic coastal states - Russia, Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States - are pushing hard to stake their claim in the Arctic Ocean as diminishing sea ice enambles activities such as fishing and the extraction of energy resources. Many of these claims are based on legal ownership of the sea floor.

In their paper, however, the academics point out that the water overlying the sea floor in the central Arctic is already an undisputed international space, both under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law. Lying beyond the exclusive economic zones of the surrounding Arctic States, it is classed as "high seas", and is legally and ecologically distinct from the sea floor, they say.

The authors warn that as current conflicts of interest escalate, the chance for peaceful cooperation will disappear. That could prohibit future transnational agreements in areas as diverse as shipping, the control of marine pollution, the management of fishing and the regulation of tourism.

"There is a window of opportunity at the moment to establish lasting, common interests in the central Arctic Ocean as an international space dedicated to peaceful uses," the researchers said. "The international community needs to act before that window closes. This is a rare opportunity - low hanging fruit - for heads of state to collectively identify their common interests and demonstrate international leadership in the central Arctic Ocean for the lasting interests of all."