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Pleading for the Arctic

DW staff (als)August 29, 2007

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has cautioned against countries breaking the law in attempts to reap the Arctic's natural energy resources. The warning comes shortly after Russia laid claims to the area.

Steinmeier and his Norwegian counterpart Stoere in Spitzbergen
Steinmeier (right) took in the dramatic effect of global warmingImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"I very much believe that everybody should respect international law," Steinmeier said while visiting a research station at Ny Alesund on Spitzbergen, a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean. "The North Pole is not a law-free zone; there are international accords which must be respected by all nations who have interests here. If everybody sticks to the rules, there will be no conflict."

Steinmeier was referring to Russia. Earlier this month, members of a Russian submarine expedition planted a flag beneath the North Pole, thereby allowing Moscow to reassert that the seabed is an extension of its own land mass.

Ny Alesund, Polar Research Base, High Arctic
The Ny Alesund polar research base in SpitzbergenImage: Irene Quaile

"Spectacular exploits mean very little," said Steinmeier, who was accompanied by his Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Stoere.

The Arctic Sea has become both a vulnerable and contested place. Scientists believe the sea bed contains massive oil and gas reserves, which could become easier to access as global warming causes the North Pole's ice caps to melt.

"Dramatic" effects

On Wednesday, Steinmeier told German broadcaster ZDF that the effects of global warming which he was witnessing in the Arctic Sea were "dramatic."

He had observed how the glaciers on Spitzbergen were melting and said the island should serve as an "early warning" of the consequences of climate change.

The foreign minister warned that the phenomenon would trigger territorial conflicts as the race for the Arctic's resources gets underway. He said, however, that nations had an obligation to protect "nature's treasures."

A Russian flag gets planted by a robot on the sea floor
A Russian flag, but is it a Russian North Pole?Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Russia's August expedition has prompted various sovereignty claims to Arctic territory by other countries -- including Denmark, Canada and the United States -- to grow louder.

Steinmeier, for his part, has been visiting Spitzbergen as part of a fact-finding trip on climate change and clean energy.

On Wednesday, he will travel to the US state of California with the aim of strengthening trans-Atlantic ties to combat climate change. Steinmeier is due to meet with California's governor, Arnold Schwarzennegger, who has set landmark goals for reducing greenhouse gases partially blamed for global warming.

The German environmentalist Green party has criticized Steinmeier's trip to the North, claiming that the foreign minister is trying to woo Norwegian gas suppliers.