Environmentalists are concerned that the rush to develop the Arctic for resource extraction and shipping will negatively impact Arctic wildlife and native peoples. But political leaders are concerned about access and control, Smith said.
According to Smith, there are four ongoing maritime boundary disputes over shipping and resource access in the Arctic: between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea; Russia and the U.S. in the Bearing Sea; the U.S. and Canada in the Beaufort Sea; and Canada and Denmark in the Davis Strait (Greenland is a semi-independent Danish territory).
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In October 2004 Denmark joined Canada and Russia in staking a claim to the North Pole. Denmark announced a 25-million-U.S.-dollar project to prove that the seabed beneath the North Pole is a natural extension of Greenland's seabed. If successful, it could give Denmark the right to the Pole's abundant resources.
"It is far too early to say whether a claim north of Greenland will be successful," said Bente Olsen of Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation in Copenhagen.
Oppenheimer said he expects to see more Arctic territory claims in the years ahead and that regardless of what countries are in control, the Arctic can expect a flood of people from the south who will likely squeeze out the native people.
"It will take some effort to ensure the invasion winds up differently than other widespread population movements," he said. "But history isn't very encouraging."
The WWF's Smith said Arctic nations ought to negotiate a treaty that regulates access to the region's resources and shipping routes to prevent an environmental catastrophe due to overdevelopment.
But first, she added, the world ought to make aggressive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions to slow or halt the pace of global warming and thus head off any widespread migration to the Arctic.
High energy prices, ongoing political instability in the Middle East, and a booming economy in China are all economic forces that increase pressure to open the Arctic to increased resource extraction and ship traffic, Smith said.
"But our view is that before anything happens, governments and people who have rights to the coastal areas should set aside the most valuable and important areas simply because they can still be a heritage for future generations," she said.
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