MAY 17, 2013
The Arctic is expected to become more important in the coming decades as climate change makes natural resources and transport routes more accessible. Reflecting the growing interest in the region, the Arctic Council granted six new countries (China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore) observer status during a May 15 ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. By admitting more observers, the Arctic Council -- an organization that promotes cooperation among countries with interests in the Arctic -- will likely become more important as a forum for discussions on Arctic issues. However, this does not necessarily mean it will be able to establish itself as a central decision-making body regarding Arctic matters.
The Arctic Council was established in 1996 by the eight countries that have territory above the Arctic Circle -- the United States, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Its main purpose was to be an intergovernmental forum (also involving Arctic indigenous groups) that promoted cooperation primarily regarding environmental matters and research. The Arctic Council's central focus has remained on environmental issues in the Arctic, and the body has had no meaningful decision-making power.
However, during this year's meeting, the council's members signed a legally binding agreement coordinating response efforts to marine pollution incidents. The council signed a similar agreement on search and rescue collaboration in 2011. These agreements, as well as the interest from countries around the world in gaining observer status, highlight the growing relevance of the Arctic Council and the Arctic region.
The Arctic's Economic Value
Satellite data collected since 1979 shows that both the thickness of the ice in the Arctic and range of sea ice have decreased substantially, especially during the summer months. According to the United States' National Snow and Ice Data Center, the amount of Arctic ice (usually at a minimum during September) was 3.61 million square kilometers (1.39 million square miles) in September 2012 -- close to 49 percent lower than the average amount of ice seen between 1979 and 2000. The melting of the ice facilitates natural resource exploration in the high north. U.S. Geological Survey estimates from 2008 suggest that 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic Circle.