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Riches in the Arctic

As global warming accelerates, new shipping routes will develop and oil and gas will be found in the frozen North. Countries stake their claim.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published April 4, 2007


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HAMMERFEST, Norway - Barren and uninhabited, Hans Island is very hard to find on a map.

Yet these days, the Frisbee-shaped rock in the Arctic is much in demand - so much so that Canada and Denmark have staked their claim to it with flags and warships.

The reason: an international race for oil, fish, diamonds and shipping routes, accelerated by the effect of global warming on Earth's frozen north.

The latest report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the ice cap is warming faster than the rest of the planet and ice is receding, partly because of greenhouse gases. It's a catastrophic scenario for the Arctic ecosystem, polar bears and other wildlife and for Inuit populations whose ancient cultures depend on frozen waters.

But some see a lucrative silver lining of riches waiting to be snatched from the deep, and the prospect of timesaving sea lanes that could transform the shipping industry the way the Suez Canal did in the 19th century.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic has as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. Moscow reportedly sees the potential of minerals in its slice of the Arctic sector approaching $2-trillion.

All this has pushed governments and businesses into a scramble for sovereignty over these suddenly priceless seas.

Regardless of climate change, oil and gas exploration in the Arctic is moving full speed ahead. State-controlled Norwegian oil company Statoil ASA plans to start tapping gas from its offshore Snoehvit field in December, the first in the Barents Sea.

"Oil will bring a big geopolitical focus. It is a driving force in the Arctic," said Arvid Jensen, a consultant in Hammerfest who advises companies that hope to hitch their economic wagons to the northern rush.

It could open the North Pole region to easy navigation for five months a year, according to the latest Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, an intergovernmental group.

That could cut sailing time from Germany to Alaska by 60 percent, going through Russia's Arctic instead of the Panama Canal.

Fast Facts:

Americans have an interest, too

Global warming is bringing an unexpected bonus to American transportation company OmniTrax Inc., which a decade ago bought the small underutilized Northwest Passage port of Churchill, Manitoba, for a token fee of 10 Canadian dollars (about $8). The company, which is private, won't say how much money it is making in Churchill, but it was estimated to have moved more than 500,000 tons of grain through the port in 2007.

[Last modified April 4, 2007, 01:58:25]


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