May 11, 2011 / 1:52 PM / 7 years ago

New Arctic naval challenges seen as ice thaws

OSLO (Reuters) - The navies of Arctic nations will face big challenges under a treaty due to be agreed Thursday to carve up responsibility for search and rescue in the fast-thawing region, Norway’s foreign minister said.

Jonas Gahr Stoere also told Reuters foreign ministers of the eight-nation Arctic Council, set to meet in Greenland, looked unlikely to resolve a dispute about whether to give outsiders such as China or Italy seats as permanent observers.

Shrinking ice, blamed by the United Nations on climate change caused by human activities, is opening the Arctic region to more shipping, oil and gas exploration, a hunt for minerals and fishing.

Foreign ministers from Arctic nations -- the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway -- are due to agree a legally binding treaty at the Greenland talks to set national zones for search and rescue.

“What you do within those borders will be ... a big challenge for each country about how you plan your coastguard, helicopter capacity and also your naval presence to deal with increased traffic,” Stoere said Wednesday.

“We will deal with more cruise traffic, more commercial trade, more oil and gas exploration,” he said.

The deal will be signed by foreign ministers including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Stoere declined to estimate likely extra costs but said initial traffic would be low.

Greenland this week approved a permit for Cairn Energy to drill four oil wells off west Greenland in 2011. Greenpeace condemned the permit, saying there was no sign of new precautions after BP’s 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

An international report last week projected that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summers in 30 to 40 years’ time, disrupting the hunting livelihoods of indigenous peoples while making the region more accessible to outsiders.

It also said a quickening thaw of ice, led by Greenland, could push up world sea levels by between 0.9 and 1.6 meters (3-5 feet) by 2100, faster than previous estimates.

Stoere said the report was a warning to other nations and a spur to United Nations talks on a deal to combat climate change.

“The Arctic Council’s biggest challenge in the past was its rather anonymous existence. Its biggest challenge today is how to deal with the growing list of states who want to become observers,” he said, but added: “I don’t have too high expectations that there will be a final breakthrough on this.”

China, South Korea, Japan, Italy and the European Commission are admitted to Arctic Council talks as “ad hoc” observers but want the right to become “permanent” to avoid the risk they could be shut out in future. Some member nations fear the council could be swamped by observers.

Stoere declined to give details of the search and rescue deal, such as who would get responsibility for the North Pole. Russia in 2007 planted a flag on the seabed beneath the Pole in a symbolic claim to resources beneath the sea floor.

He noted that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was first to reach the South Pole and plant a flag, in 1911. “That didn’t make the South Pole Norwegian,” he said. “It’s not of significance in terms of sovereignty.”

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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