The eight nations that form the Arctic Council are set to sign an agreement on a search and rescue treaty this week.Greenland photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen
The council is holding its bi-annual ministers' meeting in Nuuk, the capital city of Greenland. Among the agenda items, a treaty that would govern how Arctic countries coordinate with each other in the event of a major catastrophe such as an airplane crash or cruise ship sinking in the Arctic. In recent years, several vessels – including cruise ships and oil tankers – have run aground or developed problems requiring emergency response operations.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were both in Nuuk for the meeting. State Department officials say Clinton's presence indicates the importance U.S. policy places on the Arctic region.
The treaty -- the first legally binding one agreed upon by the Arctic Council since it was formed in 1996 -- is needed to coordinate search and rescue operations on the 13-million-square-mile waters of the region. The Arctic Sea and surrounding waters are expected to become more navigable as polar sea ice melts in future years. That ice melt has touched off a series of issues in the High North (the area within and around the Arctic Circle) including the effect of development on indigenous people, maritime commerce across the region, oil and natural gas drilling and boundary disputes.
In 2007, Russia sparked territorial concerns when one of its submarines planted a metal flag at the bottom staking a symbolic claim on the mineral wealth believed to be there. Meanwhile, China has stepped up its scientific expeditions in the Arctic, and Canada is engaged in a massive project to survey its underwater boundaries in advance of the expected sea traffic through once icebound waters.
China is not a member of the Arctic Council, which was founded in 1996, but it has ad hoc observer status and is seeking permanent observer status – as is the European Union. The opening up of the Northwest Passage across the Canadian north could speed the shipment of Chinese export goods to Europe and elsewhere.
The members of the council are: Canada, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States.