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Environment

First Arctic Forum wraps up in Moscow

It's a hot issue for a cold corner of the world: how to divvy up the Arctic and its resources without starting a fight. That was the focus of the inaugural Arctic Forum in Moscow, which ends Thursday.

A glacier floats in water

Melting ice means the Arctic is opening up faster

Three years ago, a Russian submarine crew planted a Russian flag on the seabed at the geographical North Pole: An unmistakable symbol of Russia's Arctic ambitions.

In 2010, the question of who is entitled to the Arctic region and its vast store of resources remains unanswered. It is this question that is at the heart of the two-day Arctic Forum in Moscow, Russia, which ends this Thursday.

As global warming shrinks the polar ice, the previously inaccessible area is becoming a potentially rich source of mineral wealth, and Arctic border nations Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway have all laid claim to Arctic territory.

The competition is no surprise, given that up to a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas, as well as gold, diamond, zinc, coal and iron deposits, are believed to lie in the region.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sits in front of a Russian flag

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says peace and cooperation are vital elements of Arctic development

More than minerals at stake

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told the conference on Thursday that peace and cooperation would prove crucial in the race for Arctic resources. "We think it is imperative to keep the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation," he said.

"We have heard futuristic predictions threatening a battle for the Arctic. But we are carefully tracking the situation in the region, and we clearly see that the majority of scary scenarios about the Arctic do not have any real basis."

Putin had previously spoken of the Arctic's strategic importance to Russia. "This is where our most important military and marine bases are," he said.

"It's over this territory that our bomber planes fly. This is where major transport routes like the Northeast Passage lie. And this is an important location for our cooperation with other countries."

The Kremlin has claimed a 1.2 million square kilometer region of the Arctic, an area that includes the North Pole itself, and since 2001, Russia has tried – largely unsuccessfully – to have that claim legally recognized by the United Nations.

Prime Minister Putin told the Moscow conference that he believes all territorial issues in the Arctic can be solved by international law. Others in the Russian camp hope that scientific data, which centers on an underwater mountain range known as the Lomonosov Ridge, will see their claims recognized.

MV Beluga Foresight

Two freighters successfully travelled from Asia to Europe via the Arctic last year

Rival claims

"We have to prove that the continental shelf at the bottom of the sea, including the Lomonosov Ridge, is part of – or to be more precise is an extension of – the mainland. That's all," Russian Federation Arctic Council Chairman Anton Vasiliev said.

"But that costs an incredible amount of money and an insane amount of time."

Russia is not the only player putting its faith in the figures: Denmark has also argued that the Lomonosov Ridge is a continuation of Danish-ruled Greenland, and Canada has argued that the shelf lies closer to the Canadian Ellesmere Island than to the Russian mainland.

"We will submit our data on the Lomonosov Ridge, and we are confident that our case will prevail, backed by scientific evidence," Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.

The US, too, has long been looking for data that would prove they too had a right to access the Arctic's natural resources. But the agenda at the Moscow Arctic Forum, which attracted over 400 politicians and researchers from 15 countries, went beyond questions of which Arctic resources should go to whom.

Melting could mean disasters

"Due to what is happening in the Arctic region, as a result of melting, more than 800 million people may be faced with an emergency situation," Russian Emergencies Minister and conference chairman Sergei Shoigu said.

"We need a common and united search and rescue system. Besides we have to keep in mind what happened in the Gulf of Mexico."

Shoigu says the question is not whether or not hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic will be exploited, but when, and that exploitation of the region will require a common approach to safety and environmental issues from all countries concerned.

Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp/Christina Nagel/skt

Editor: Nathan Witkop

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