A predicted thaw in the Arctic ice cover combined with a search for energy supplies is leading to a new "gold rush" in the high north, bringing diplomatic problems in its wake as five countries vie for access to resources.
There are disputes involving all of the five - the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark. The US and Canada argue over rights in the North West Passage, Norway and Russia over the Barents Sea, Canada and Denmark are competing over a small island off Greenland, the Russian parliament is refusing to ratify an agreement with the US over the Bering Sea and Denmark is seeking to trump everyone by claiming the North Pole itself.
"It's the way the geography works," said Peter Croker, an Irish government petroleum expert who is also chairman of the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a body set up to arbitrate on how far a country's coastal rights extend.
"It's the only place where a number of countries encircle an enclosed ocean. There is a lot of overlap. If you take a normal coastal state, the issues are limited to adjoining states and an outer boundary. In the Arctic, it is quite different," he told the BBC News website. ] The ice thaw is predicted by a team of international researchers whose Arctic Climate Impact Assessment suggested last year that the summer ice cap could melt completely before the end of this century because of global warming. If the ice retreats, it could open up new shipping routes and new areas where natural resources could be exploited.
In any event, the hunt is on for oil and gas. The US Geological Survey estimates that a quarter of the world's undiscovered energy resources lies in Arctic areas, reports BBC news. Photo: BBC news I.L.