Page last updated at 20:59 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 21:59 UK

Conflict fear over Arctic borders

By David Shukman
Environment correspondent, BBC News, Alaska

Coast guard
The Coast Guard's warning comes as sea-ice is retreating dramatically

A senior US Coast Guard commander has warned of the risk of conflict in the Arctic, unless disputes over international borders are resolved.

Speaking to the BBC during an Arctic patrol flight, Rear Adm Gene Brooks, in charge of the Coast Guard's vast Alaska region, appealed for a diplomatic deal.

"The potential is there with undetermined boundaries and great wealth for conflict, or competition.

"There's always a risk of conflict," Adm Brookes said.

He added that this was especially the case "where you do not have established, delineated, agreed-upon borders".

Russia is staking the largest claim to the Arctic, after planting a flag at the North Pole last summer, but Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States are all involved in border disputes as well.

The admiral's warning comes as the Arctic sea-ice has, for a second year running, retreated far more dramatically than the long-term average. The latest satellite analysis shows this year's melt closely following last year's record thaw.

Rear Admiral
Rear Admiral Gene Brooks (left) is appealing for a diplomatic solution

With China deploying a research ship to within 200 miles of the North Pole, and Russia adding to its already formidable fleet of ice-breakers, the US Coast Guard mounted a pilot operation to Alaska's Arctic coast this summer.

Training exercises included search and rescue, and the protection of oil and gas installations, and plans are now being drawn up for permanent bases.

The big chill

Admiral Brooks told me he enjoys good working relations with his Russian counterpart across the Bering Strait - with regular email exchanges - though a friendship port visit to the Russian Far East has been put on hold, and may be cancelled, following the conflict in Georgia.


David Shukman tours climate research centre

The new chill in relations in this sensitive region could not have come at a worse time.

The admiral said his hope was that he could keep relations warm with his Russian and Canadian neighbours, "and 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."

The melting has created vast areas of open ocean and attracted far more maritime traffic, including cruise ships - all more rapidly than forecasts indicated only a few years ago.

Dan Endres
Dan Endres warns more severe weather systems are on their way
It may also have an effect on the weather far beyond the Arctic region itself, as white reflective ice makes way for darker ocean that absorbs more solar radiation.

At America's northernmost climate research post, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), station chief Dan Endres warns 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.

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

The diary of an Arctic explorer
10 Sep 08 |  Science/Nature
Arctic Map shows dispute hotspots
05 Aug 08 |  Science/Nature
Major ice-shelf loss for Canada
03 Sep 08 |  Science/Nature
Arctic ice 'is at tipping point'
28 Aug 08 |  Science/Nature
Coal's toxic legacy to the Arctic
18 Aug 08 |  Science/Nature

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