Arctic Council members convened on Friday in a meeting in Canada’s Iqaluit where they pledged to fight climate change affecting the region.
Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States agreed to set up measures to reduce black carbon and methane emissions, which contribute significantly to the melting of the ice caps and global warming.
Increasing temperatures throughout the planet has caused the ice in the Arctic circle to recede to its furthest point since 1979, U.S. data has shown, with warming in the region occurring twice as fast as other parts of the world.
The melting ice not only threatens traditional communities in the region, but also causes a rise in global sea levels which could wipe out low-lying Pacific island nations, Kiribati President Anote Tong warned in a letter addressing to the Arctic Council.
"Allowing the Arctic to thaw even a little bit threatens to start a deadly cycle of warming that could quickly spiral out of control," Tong wrote.
Speaking during the meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the situation “alarming.”
"Temperatures are increasing at more than twice the rate of the global average, which means the resilience of Arctic communities and ecosystems and the ability of future generations to adapt and live and prosper in the Arctic is tragically, but actually, in jeopardy," Kerry said.
Countries in the far-north, particularly Russia, have been criticised by environmentalists for fracking activities in the region, as the receding ice sheet promises new opportunities to drill for hydrocarbons as well as opening new shipping lanes.
According to the U.S. Geological Service, as much as 30 percent of the world’s untapped natural resources are found in the Arctic region.
Russia has been increasing its military presence in the Arctic region, having assigned 45,000 troops to participate in a huge military drill in March which included war planes and submarines.
Canada also held a smaller scale military exercise involving 200 Canadian Army Regular and Reserve Force soldiers in the same month, as both nations attempt to assert their dominance in the region.
The situation is further complicated by tensions between Western nations and Russia over the political crisis in Ukraine.
Russia has been subject to Western-enforced economic sanctions since it annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last year following the deposing of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.
Moscow has also been at odds with the West over its support for pro-Russian separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, who have been fighting to establish the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic since Yanukovych fled the country.
Although the issue was not brought up during the meeting, Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said she raised the discussion with her Russian counterpart Sergei Donskoi on the sidelines.
"I did have a brief discussion ... to state again that we condemn the actions of Russia with Ukraine and that was it," Aglukkaq said.
However, Aglukkaq dismissed the idea of Russian military drills harming the Arctic Council’s work.
Russia has also committed $500 million plans to establish as many as 40 ports, airfields and radar stations as part of a new defence programme in the Arctic, causing concern over the militarisation of the region.
Norway on alert
Among the countries intimidated by Russia’s parade of military strength is Norway, which this week announced it was increasing its defence budget by around half a billion dollars to modernise its army.
Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide said an anti-aircraft battery and German-made Leopard 2 tanks were on the country’s shopping list of military equipment.
During Russia’s military drill in March, Norway was also holding its "Joint Viking" drills involving 5,000 troops in Finnmark county, which borders Russia.
At the time Norwegian Lieutenant General Haga Lunde said the country had planned its military drills before the Ukraine crisis, but added the current security situation in Europe made the exercise is “more relevant than ever."
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg also announced Norway is planning to drill for further north into the Barents Sea.
“We believe that this is technically correct. There is an observable ice edge in the Barents Sea. Now that it has moved, it is appropriate to do this," Prime Minister Solberg said.
Ice in the Barents Sea is currently 65 percent less than it was in 1975, allowing Norway drill beyond its traditional area of exploration.
According to current agreements, each country is only allowed to drill within their exclusive economic zones of 200 nautical miles.