billions of dollars in investment in ice-class ships.
Antarctica, meanwhile, is witnessing a growing parade of tourists (40,000, including tour staff, in 2007), as well as researchers (now about 4,000 in summer occupying 37 permanent stations and numerous field camps) and companies interested in exploiting the biological properties of that continent's "extremophiles."
However, "many experts believe this new rush to the polar regions is not manageable within existing international law," says A.H. Zakri, Director of the United Nations University's Yokohama-based Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS), co-organizers of the conference with Iceland's University of Akureyri, in partnership with Tilburg University (Netherlands), and the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law, at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland (Finland).
"Pressure on Earth's unique and highly vulnerable polar areas is mounting quickly and an internationally-agreed set of rules built on new realities appears needed to many observers. In Iceland, leading scholars will detail fast-emerging issues in international law and policy in the polar regions caused by such developments as the opening up of the Northwest Passage. They will identify priorities for law-making and research and offer their best advice to decision makers, who clearly need to act even faster than the changing environment."
Rising Arctic economic activity
Problems forecast for the Arctic as its ice recedes include:
Pollution from ships and offshore extraction of oil and gas
Invasion of alien species carried by ships' ballast water
"Overfishing, the result in part of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, is already occurring in the Okhotsk and Bering Seas," says conference presenter Dr. Tatiana Saksina of the World Wildlife Fund's International Arctic Programme.
"Agreements are needed now to regulate shared and straddling fish stocks and to protect fish migrating to higher latitudes in search of colder waters," she says.
"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 (as demonstrated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill). The same conditions that contribute to high oil spill risks can also make response operations extremely difficult or totally ineffective," she adds. "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."