Eight states that border the
Arctic region Thursday agreed to cooperate in international search and rescue operations, signalling the growing importance of the region believed to host huge oil and gas reserves, dpa reported.
Melting sea ice allows for new potential shipping routes, and also opens up new areas for exploration of oil and gas and other minerals. This means more shipping and other activity in the region.
The treaty was announced at a summit co-hosted by Foreign Minister Lene Espersen of Denmark, the outgoing chair of the Arctic Council, and Kuupik Kleist, the premier of Greenland.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also attended the meeting in Nuuk, capital of Greenland.
The council groups Canada, Denmark including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
"There is a lot of interest to join the council as observer," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, incoming chair of the council, in a conference call from Nuuk.
China, Japan, South Korea, Italy and the European Union have applied to join as observers but a decision was not due at the Nuuk meeting, Bildt said.
Sweden was to focus on three areas: climate and the environment, economic development, and living conditions for people in the region.
"Here you see climate change faster than anywhere else," he said.
During its chairmanship Sweden would also aim to "make the Arctic voice heard at international climate talks," Bildt said.
Global sea levels are feared to be rising higher and faster than previously estimated due to rapidly melting Artic ice sheets, according to recent findings by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).
The rise of between 0.9 and 1.6 metres suggested an almost three-fold higher rise in sea levels compared with a 2007 assessment by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Factors believed to drive the melt include emissions of methane gas as well as soot that changes the way how ice and snow interact with the sun, absorbing rather than reflecting the sunrays.
The Arctic Council, set up in 1996, also includes representatives of the indigenous peoples in the Arctic. Bildt said the council was "likely the organization where indigenous peoples have the greatest influence."
While exploration of oil and gas were national decisions, Bildt said, adding that he aimed to push for greater exchange of information among member states on how to avoid oil spills