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Skating on thin ice: Why the poles might need environmental police

Forget the Russians moving troops north of the Arctic circle to protect "vital interests," even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognizes that the rules for the poles have changed. At the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council in Baltimore this week she called for "strengthening environmental regulation" for the South Pole in the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.

"With the collapse of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, we are reminded that global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis," she said. "We need to increase our attention not only to the Antarctic but to the Arctic as well."

That means a pragmatic reevaluation of polar priorities. After all, as ice shelves collapse and glaciers melt, there's the problem of controlling sea level rise around the globe that could one day drown coastal cities including those along the U.S. coast.
 
The U.S. Geological Survey just announced, for instance, that research shows that Antarctica's glaciers are melting even faster than previously believed. Historical and satellite imagery reveals that Wordie Ice Shelf has vanished and that there's widespread retreat along Antarctica's Larsen ice shelf—an area three times the size of Rhode Island (more than 3,281 square miles or 8,500 square kilometers).

But polar priorities are also about controlling the resource rush that is likely to occur on lands and in waters that are becoming accessible as the ice cover dwindles in the Arctic Ocean. New evidence from NASA satellites released yesterday shows that the polar ice cap is shrinking in size and what's left is thinner. "Thickness is important, especially in winter, because it is the best overall indicator of the health of the ice cover," research scientist Walter Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., said in announcing the findings. "As the ice cover in the Arctic grows thinner, it grows more vulnerable to melting in the summer," a partial explanation for record melting in recent years.

The managers of Alaska's fisheries agreed to forego any fishing in newly open Arctic waters to give scientists time to gauge the environmental impacts before exploiting a new resource. But the fishing fleets of other nations such as Norway have not waited, already following valuable fish stocks further north.

Meantime, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. are all vying for sovereignty over large swathes of the Arctic that once were polar bear retreats but now are ice-free waters that contain black gold (read: oil) and other fossil fuels as well as lucrative international shipping shortcuts. The newly open waters are good news for ships but presage starvation for polar bears, which is why they are now listed as an endangered species. One has to wonder if Robert Peary had any clue what he started 100 years ago this week when he planted the U.S. flag at the North Pole.

Image: NASA

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