OTTAWA (Reuters) - Defense chiefs from eight Arctic nations agreed on Friday to cooperate more closely to deal with disasters and search and rescue operations in the remote resource-rich region, Canada’s top soldier said.
As the Arctic warms up, major nations are jostling for influence in a frozen part of the world believed to contain vast reserves of oil, gas, gold, diamonds, zinc and iron.
Canada’s chief of the defense staff told Reuters that the inaugural meeting of top Arctic military officials had vowed to work together in a region where there is little infrastructure and coping with a disaster could be very difficult.
“Certainly what we saw was a great sense of a spirit of cooperation amongst everyone,” General Walter Natynczyk said after the conference at a military base at Goose Bay in the Canadian Atlantic province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
As well as Canada, the United States and Russia - which account for the vast majority of the Arctic - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden also attended. Natynczyk said the defense chiefs had agreed to meet once a year from now on.
“The climate ... is changing and therefore areas that heretofore have been inaccessible really are now open for much longer (in) the year,” Natynczyk said in a phone interview.
The eight nations will look for ways to “enable such cooperation operations ... (as) search and rescue, or in response to a natural disaster, a man-made crisis like a ship going up on the rocks and those kinds of scenarios,” he said.
The Arctic is warming up much faster than the rest of the world, which in theory could open up relatively short cross-Polar shipping routes.
Environmentalists are very cautious about the idea of developing the Arctic and say oil spills could have catastrophic consequences for wildlife.
“Each year it seems as if we’re breaking records with more and more cruise ships and environmental or scientific expeditions in ... a region that is unpredictable,” said Natynczyk.
“Therefore what I really see, and the kinds of themes that we got from people today, were ones of seamless cooperation, having common situational awareness to maritime traffic up here, so if something happens we’re ready to respond.”
Officials would look at building tighter links between Arctic nations’ coast guards, fisheries departments, police and border security agencies, he added.
Shortly after Natynczyk spoke, Canada’s defense ministry said it would hold a major sovereignty and security operation in the Arctic from now until May 1. Troops will carry out a mock search and rescue operation mission as part of the exercise.
Editing by Eric Walsh