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New laws needed in changing polar regions: experts

by Staff Writers
Reykjavik (AFP) Sept 7, 2008
Some 40 legal experts from around the world gathered in Iceland on Sunday for a three-day conference aimed at staking out a new legal framework for the fragile and changing polar regions.

"A new coordinated international set of rules to govern commercial and research activities in both of the Earth's polar regions is urgently needed to reflect new environmental realities and to temper pressure building in these highly fragile ecosystems," organisers said in a statement.

The Polar Law Symposium is being hosted by the United Nations University and the University of Akureyri in northern Iceland, the venue of the event, and features a wide range of legal experts in fields related to new challenges arising in the Arctic and Antarctic.

In the Arctic, climate change is leading the polar ice cap to melt away, with scientists predicting the fabled Northwest Passage will open up in the summer months by 2030.

An ice-free North Pole holds the promise of far shorter shipping routes between Europe and Asia and of making the region's untold wealth of natural resources, including oil and gas, more accessible.

But there is a flip-side to the coin.

"With the area being more accessible, there's more activity and thereby more risk of some form of accident, like a vessel sinking or even a new oil spill along the lines of Exxon Valdez," symposium chairman David Leary of the UN University told AFP.

Tatiana Saksina of the World Wildlife Fund's International Arctic Programme agreed.

"Arctic sea routes are among the world's most hazardous due to lack of natural light, extreme cold, moving ice floes, high wind and low visibility, and the Arctic marine environment is particularly susceptible to the effects of pollution," she cautioned in a statement.

"Yet there are no internationally binding rules to regulate operational pollution from offshore installations. Strict standards for the transportation of Arctic oil are also urgently needed," she said.

While there are already certain regulations in place, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Saksina insisted they were inadequate for protecting rapidly changing ice oceans.

"There is an urgent need for a comprehensive international environmental regime specially tailored for the unique Arctic conditions. This regime is needed before natural resource development expands widely," she said.

Antarctica, meanwhile is facing a different set of challenges, largely linked to a growing parade of tourists and researchers visiting the icy continent.

In 2007, some 40,000 tourists and tour staff visited Antarctica, while in the summer months there are now around 4,000 researchers based at 37 permanent stations and numerous field camps there.

According to the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, signatories must avoid all change and risk to the continent's ecosystem by avoiding the introduction of non-native species and micro-organisms.

Experts at the Akureyri conference however warned that heightened tourism in the area could make it difficult to ensure that no one tracks in alien soil and seeds or introduces "infectious disease-causing agents" through interaction with wildlife or by leaving behind organic waste.

The symposium will wrap up on Tuesday with participants agreeing on a set of recommendations to send to governments, international bodies and other interested parties.

The list of recommendations should be printed and ready to send out within six weeks of the event, conference chairman Leary said.

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British adventurer begins kayak expedition to North Pole
Oslo (AFP) Aug 31, 2008
British explorer and adventurer Lewis Gordon Pugh has begun a kayak expedition to the North Pole aimed at drawing attention to the dramatic impact of melting polar ice in the Arctic, his blog said Sunday.

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