TROMSO, Norway - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is trekking north of the Arctic Circle, a region that could become a new international battleground for resources.
Clinton's trip Saturday to the northern Norwegian city of Tromso is her second to the area in a year. She is bringing a message of cooperation to one of the world's last frontiers of unexplored oil, gas and mineral deposits and underscoring the region's rising significance as melting icecaps accelerate the opening of new shipping routes, fishing stocks and drilling opportunities.
To safely exploit the riches, the U.S. and other countries near the North Pole are trying to work together to combat harmful climate change, settle territorial disputes and prevent oil spills.
"From a strategic standpoint, the Arctic has an increasing geopolitical importance as countries vie to protect their rights and extend their influence," Clinton said Friday in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. Governments should "agree on what would be, in effect, the rules of the road in the Arctic, so new developments are economically sustainable and environmentally responsible toward future generations."
At the least, the U.S. and the other Arctic nations hope to avoid a confrontational race for resources. Officials say the picture looks more promising than five years ago when Russia staked its claim to supremacy in the Arctic and its $9 trillion in estimated oil reserves by planting a titanium flag on the ocean floor.
The United States does not recognize the Russian assertion and has its own claims, along with Denmark, Norway and Canada, while companies from Exxon Mobil Corp. to Royal Dutch Shell PLC want to get in on the action. China also is keeping a close eye on the region.
Moscow has eased tensions somewhat by promising to press any claims through an agreed United Nations process. But Washington, for its part, has yet to ratify the global body's 1982 Law of the Sea treaty regulating the ocean's use for military, transportation and mineral extraction purposes.
One hundred sixty countries have acceded to the pact and the Obama administration is making a new push for Senate approval. Refusing to sign on means the U.S. could be frozen out of its share of the spoils.
Arguing for its ratification at a Senate hearing last week, Clinton said the treaty would offer the U.S. oil and gas rights some 600 miles into the Arctic.
"American companies are equipped and ready to engage in deep seabed mining," she said. "But the United States can only take advantage of the ... mine sites in areas beyond national jurisdiction as a party to this treaty."
The Arctic's warming is occurring at least twice as fast as anywhere else on earth, threatening to raise sea levels by up to 5 feet this century and possibly causing a 25 percent jump in mercury emissions over the next decade. The changes could threaten polar bears, whales, seals and indigenous communities hunting those animals for food, not to mention islands and low-lying areas much farther afield, from Florida to Bangladesh.
But the rapidly changing climate is also changing the realm of what is possible from transportation to tourism, with the summer ice melting away by more than 17,000 square miles each year. During the most temperate days last year, only a fifth of the Arctic Circle was ice-covered. Little of the ice has been frozen longer than two years, which is harder for icebreakers to cut through.
Europeans see new shipping routes to China that, at least in the warmth and sunlight of summer, are 40 percent faster than traveling through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. A northwest passage between Greenland and Canada could significantly speed cargo traveling between the Dutch shipping hub of Rotterdam and ports in California.
And the eight-nation Arctic Council, which is being established in Tromso, is hoping to manage the new opportunities in a responsible way. Talking to reporters Friday, Clinton urged the governments to "begin working together to make plans for what will most certainly become greater ocean travel, greater exploration, therefore greater pollution, greater impact of human beings."
"We will of course claim what is ours under international law," she said. "But we know that leaves a great vast amount of the Arctic that will be a common responsibility."
Last year in Greenland, Clinton and her counterparts from other nations took a small step toward international cooperation by agreeing to coordinate Arctic search-and-rescue missions for stranded sailors and others.
Officials are now trying to enhance the cooperation, including through joint plans to prevent oil spills in an environment that would make cleanup a logistical nightmare.
And the U.S. has also been championing measures such as shifting away from dirty diesel engines, agricultural burning and hydrofluorocarbons to lessen the effect of short-lived greenhouse gases that are a particularly potent source of climate change in the Arctic.