WASHINGTON - As declining sea ice and better mapping and technology make the Arctic more accessible, nations with interests there -- including the United States -- are beginning to stake their claim on the resource-rich region.
Russia in 2007 planted a flag on the sea floor below the North Pole. Denmark this week announced it would ask the United Nations to recognize the North Pole as an extension of Greenland, its territory. And the U.S. this month for the first time sent a secretary of state to a meeting of eight Arctic nations, a sign that Americans also have their eye on the region's potential resources.
"This region matters greatly to us," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the conference last week in Nuuk, Greenland.
The U.S. is committed to the Arctic Council's mission as well as the challenges facing the Arctic, Clinton said, including possible resource development.
Although there remain numerous logistical challenges to oil and gas exploration, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates as much of a third of the world's undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil may be in the offshore Arctic, in relatively shallow water.
"The melting of sea ice, for example, will result in more shipping, fishing, and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves," Clinton said. "We seek to pursue these opportunities in a smart, sustainable way that preserves the Arctic environment and ecosystem."
The U.S. has been slow to recognize not just the importance of the Arctic, but the implications of the melting ice and what it means for commercial and economic interests, said John Bellinger III, a senior adviser to Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state in the Bush Administration. Other nations have been far more focused on it while the U.S. has been distracted by other events.
"Secretary Clinton attending a summit of Arctic council members at a time when so many others things are going on in the world, does demonstrate that the U.S. understands the importance of the Arctic," Bellinger said.
Clinton brought along with her to Greenland Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has long worked to remind other officeholders that the U.S. is an Arctic nation and its foreign policy should reflect it. Murkowski's presence was also the first time anyone from Congress had attended such a gathering.
"It's been frustrating getting anyone's attention on Arctic issues, but Hillary Clinton is one who I could engage on this topic," Murkowski said.
Murkowski said she first got Clinton's attention on Arctic matters long before the former first lady was ever secretary of state. Several senators, including Clinton, visited Alaska one summer a few years ago, and Murkowski and her husband hosted them at a salmon barbecue.
It was obvious that Clinton's trip to some of Alaska's Arctic regions had inspired her, Murkowski said. Clinton got it, Murkowski said - including the region's strategic importance to the U.S. Since then, the two women have regularly had serious policy discussions about the region.
Murkowski said she believes it established creditability with the other Arctic nations for the secretary of state to attend. Clinton had this message, Murkowski said: "The United States is an Arctic nation and this region matters greatly to us."
In Greenland, the eight countries signed several accords, including a pact to cooperate on search and rescue missions in a region with minimal resources for such expeditions. The agreement is recognition that more people will be in the area - whether they're on cruise ships, cargo planes or oil rigs.
They also laid the groundwork for a multi-nation task force to address oil and gas development in the Arctic. Since last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, many nations have re-evaluated the safety of offshore drilling, and the U.S. is itself considering how to proceed in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's northern coast.
Environmental groups such as Oceana have been keeping close tabs on potential oil and gas development in the region, and believe it's critical for the U.S. to take the lead in Arctic matters. The Arctic is changing rapidly and is more sensitive to the impacts of climate change than other regions, said Chris Krenz, the lead Arctic project manager for Oceana's Juneau office.
"The Arctic is a very spectacular place," Krenz said. "It really captures the imagination of people."
Many of those attending the council meeting, including Clinton, called for the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty. Nearly every diplomat at the meeting had the same question for the U.S. representatives, said Murkowski. When would the U.S. act?
The treaty, which governs worldwide navigation rights and resources such as fisheries, also provides a framework for settling territorial claims in the Arctic.
Bellinger said the White House needs to make a significant push for the treaty's passage. Arctic interests are but a small part of the U.S. signing the treaty, he said. He said it also has significant benefits for national security, for the U.S. Navy and for commercial interests and the environment. But the Arctic interests are vital, too, he said.
"It's hard to understand why a Senate would not want us to have access to all of that oil and gas in the Arctic," he said.
The U.S. and Canada, which are cooperating on research to develop better maps in the Arctic, have their own disputes over boundaries, Murkowski said. And Canada has a differing philosophy about navigational access through the Northwest Passage.
If the U.S. signs the treaty, the U.S. can claim an area of the outer continental shelf the size of California, Murkowksi said. Without signing it, the U.S. has weaker claims in the region.
"Every minister that I spoke with brought up Law of the Sea," Murkowski said. "I think it's very important for the U.S., for our sovereignty, if you will, within the region."
Even non-Arctic nations have an eye on the potentially resource-rich prize. Some non-Arctic nations - such as China - have been exploring the region. No one is quite certain what the Chinese want, she said.
"That concerns me," Murkowksi said. "If we don't do this...we have no right to lay claim, or to make a case for it."