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The Arctic Ocean is melting, and it is melting fast. This past summer, the area covered by sea ice shrank by more than one million square miles, reducing the Arctic icecap to only half the size it was 50 years ago. For the first time, the Northwest Passage -- a fabled sea route to Asia that European explorers sought in vain for centuries -- opened for shipping. Even if the international community manages to slow the pace of climate change immediately and dramatically, a certain amount of warming is irreversible. It is no longer a matter of if, but when, the Arctic Ocean will open to regular marine transportation and exploration of its lucrative natural-resource deposits.
Global warming has given birth to a new scramble for territory and resources among the five Arctic powers. Russia was the first to stake its claim in this great Arctic gold rush, in 2001. Moscow submitted a claim to the United Nations for 460,000 square miles of resource-rich Arctic waters, an area roughly the size of the states of California, Indiana, and Texas combined. The UN rejected this ambitious annexation, but last August the Kremlin nevertheless dispatched a nuclear-powered icebreaker and two submarines to plant its flag on the North Pole's sea floor. Days later, the Russians provocatively ordered strategic bomber flights over the Arctic Ocean for the first time since the Cold War. Not to be outdone, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced funding for new Arctic naval patrol vessels, a new deep-water port, and a cold-weather training center along the Northwest Passage. Denmark and Norway, which control Greenland and the Svalbard Islands, respectively, are also anxious to establish their claims.