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Arctic Border Disputes Heating Up

September 11, 2008

A senior commander with the United States Coast Guard said there is a risk of conflict in the Arctic if international border disputes are not resolved.

“The potential is there with undetermined boundaries and great wealth for conflict, or competition,” Rear Adm Gene Brooks told BBC News during a patrol flight over the Arctic. 

“There’s always a risk of conflict,” he said, particularly “where you do not have established, delineated, agreed-upon borders”.  

Brooks is making an appeal for a diplomatic agreement.

After planting a flag at the North Pole last summer, Russia is staking the largest claim to the region.  However, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States are also involved in the disputes.

The admiral’s warning comes amid an Arctic sea-ice retreat that far exceeds the long-term average.  It’s the second year for such a retreat, with satellite analysis revealing this year’s melt to closely follow last year’s record thaw.

Many countries have a presence in the Arctic, with China deploying a research ship to within 200 miles of the North Pole, and Russia complementing its already sizeable fleet of icebreakers. 

The Coast Guard completed a pilot operation to Alaska’s Arctic coast this summer, and conducted training exercises including search and rescue and the protection of oil and gas installations. Plans for permanent bases are currently under way.

Admiral Brooks told BBC News he enjoys a good working relationship with his Russian counterpart across the Bering Strait, and that the two regularly exchange email. However, a friendship port visit to the Russian Far East has been suspended, and may be cancelled, in the wake of the Georgian conflict.

The strain could not have come at a worse time.  The admiral said he hoped he could maintain strong relations with his Russian and Canadian neighbors to “allow the capitals to work the larger issues of who owns what and where”.

“The philosophy has got to be one of co-operation, because competition or conflict in the Arctic is not going to help anyone and it’s going to do a lot of damage to an otherwise fragile ecosystem,” he said.

The Arctic melting has created massive areas of open sea, resulting in far more maritime traffic.  The melt may also impact areas far beyond the Arctic, as the disappearance of the white reflective ice creates more of the dark ocean that absorbs more solar radiation.

Dan Endres, the station chief of NOAA’s northernmost climate research post, warned of the development of more severe weather systems.

“As the icecap retreats, and we see changing weather patterns here, it could translate into stronger storms – we’ll see more severity in the storms we have, that’s part of climate change,” he told BBC News.

“And these storms, the weather patterns, often start in the Arctic and move south.”

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