Chill in the air as Arctic nations meet

IQALUIT, Canada (AFP) - Ministers from Arctic nations gathered in northern Canada on Friday to shine a spotlight on one of the planet's most remote regions, which thanks to climate change is becoming a new hotspot in tensions with Russia.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as everywhere else on the globe, and US officials last month said the Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest winter point since satellite observations began in the late 1970s.

While the polar melt is of major concern because of rising sea levels, it is also opening up new ocean trade routes, and offering the tantalising promise of untapped offshore oil and gas fields in an energy-hungry world.

With new opportunities, however, come new challenges and rivalries, something the United States will have to shepherd for the next two years as it takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

US Secretary of State John Kerry Friday arrived in the town of Iqaluit, on Baffin Island, to meet other ministers from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.

They will be joined by observers from the region's indigenous peoples and nations, including from China.

"The dangers are enormous in terms of sea-level rise and what could happen if Greenland's ice melts," Kerry told the Washington Post Thursday.

"These compounded dangers, and the fact that this is pristine wilderness that's being affected, should jog someone's moral conscience."

While tackling climate change will be high on the US agenda as chair of the Arctic Council, Washington also hopes to improve ocean stewardship, maritime safety and the lives of the Arctic's four million inhabitants.

MILITARY MUSCLE

There are underlying tensions though, as Russia, under global sanctions due to its role in the conflict in Ukraine, begins to flex its muscles in the region.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov won't be at the meeting, with Moscow's environment minister Sergei Donskoi attending instead.

And last weekend, Norway was angered when Russia's deputy prime minister visited its Arctic Svalbard archipelago even though he is banned from Norwegian territory under EU sanctions.

Dmitry Rogozin promptly used Twitter to announce his arrival. "North Pole. Our Station-2015. Anniversary of the 'Battle on the Ice' on Lake Chudskoe. But it's all quiet & as planned," he wrote.

Earlier this month, Russian ships also docked at what was once a secret Norwegian naval base in the Arctic, prompting concern.

"The reason that this is so important is because the Arctic is unravelling with major consequences," said Rafe Pomerance, chair of Arctic 21, a coalition of non-governmental organisations working on climate science and policy.

"And it's not well understood how fast its unravelling and what a profound change in the world's climate system this is."

While the ice melt raises sea levels, another danger is the thawing of the permafrost which unleashes trapped carbon dixoide, one of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

"It will become a significant source of emissions through the 21st century and beyond, complicating efforts to stabilise concentrations and keep temperature below whatever goal the world decides upon," Pomerance told AFP.

"The fate of the Arctic affects every coastal city in the world," he added.

UNTAPPED WEALTH

Nations are gearing up for major UN talks in Paris in December to agree a new international pact pegging global warming to 2 deg C over pre-industrial levels.

Kerry has voiced concern about government commitments to ensuring the necessary cut in fossil fuels to keep temperatures at the 2 deg C mark.

"We're not meeting that goal, and it bothers me immensely," Kerry told the Post.

According to a 2008 study by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic may hold 13 per cent of the planet's undiscovered oil and 30 per cent of the world's natural gas.

The melting ice also creates shorter shipping routes between the Pacific and the Atlantic - connecting markets in Europe and Asia.

The number of ships crossing the Bering Strait is already on the rise with the US Coast Guard saying the number of vessels making the voyage nearly doubled between 2009 and 2012 and again from 2012 to last year, to 440.