UN Arctic Council LogoThe leading nations with interests in the Arctic have gathered in Nuuk Greenland to sign a new Aeronautical and Maritime Search And Rescue treaty governing the rescue of persons working in the frigid waters of the north.

The treaty is of increasing importance as global warming increases the access of vessels trading and working in Arctic regions. Just this year a Russian icebreaker was deployed through howling winds and heavy snow to rescue icebound ships in the Sea of Okhotsk where more than 500 seamen are trapped and several incidents involving arctic cruise vessels have been reported in the past two seasons.

The nations participating in the treaty are members of the Arctic Council, which include United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, but discussions where also held with indigenous inhabitants of the region. Noticeably missing from the talks are maritime superpowers like China and India, countries without Arctic territories that would, nevertheless, make use of new Arctic shipping lanes which may soon open to vessel traffic. But the Arctic Council has not ruled out the possibility of including these nations in future discussions and will discuss at what level these countries will be allowed to participate.

“It’s an important gathering, but also a symbol of some of the big challenges that the Arctic faces,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said today noting that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would accompany Clinton to Nuuk.”There are very core interests that are at stake in the Arctic, but it is an opportunity to find new patterns of cooperation,” he said

With Secretary Steinberg’s comments comes the other side of the story. While the countries are eager to pool their resources in the effort to make Arctic operations safe and practical, they continue to disagree on the ownership of vast mineral and oil reserves in the region… a topic maritime, offshore and environmental groups are keeping a close eye on.

In the long term the effect of the treaty is a likely strengthening of the Arctic Council’s role in governing the region but in the coming months the agreement, which will follow IAMSAR’s guidelines for implementing new maritime procedures, will likely result in immediate change to Search And Rescue operations. But the most visible guideline for the treaty is the agreement to share information, experience, weather (and other) data as well as conduct joint training, inspections and research between the countries.

The full terms of the agreement, including the territories it covers, can be found HERE but practical information that relates directly to mariners will be distributed through “normal channels” (i.e. Notice To Mariners) once established.

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