A convoy of ships going through a channel made by an icebreaker ©BELGA 

The European Parliament hosted the 9th Conference of Parliamentarians from the Arctic region from 13-15 September in Brussels. Key issues like sustainable management of resources, cooperation in education and research and the melting summer ice dominated the agenda. With the ice cap gone, many tour-operators are sending cruise ships to explore the barren lands of icebergs and polar bears, but few of these vessels are adapted for arctic travel.

With a dramatic increase of arctic shipping experts are warning that the next major maritime disaster is imminent.  

"The next major naval catastrophe is imminent"

The current president of the Nordic Council, Icelandic MP Helgi Hjorvar, sent out a stern warning to the audience and beyond. "Major accidents are waiting to happen," he said referring to poorly equipped cruise ships, untrained crews, limited rescue capacities, unchartered waters and moving icebergs. 

The Arctic opens up to new economic opportunities

Some conference speakers gave a very practical presentation on new business opportunities. In September 2010 the first non-Russian vessel could cross from Norway to China via the arctic route, which saves 10-15 days in comparison to the traditional route via the Suez Canal.

Erik Lahnstein, State Secretary to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the conference that "the economic potential, the resources in this region are so rich that it is important to manage this in a responsible way. The idea is not to preserve the Arctic region as a museum, but to utilize it for the whole of mankind".

EU/EP Arctic voices

So far Denmark, Sweden and Finland are more affected by Arctic issues. With the negotiations of Iceland to become a member state of the European Union underway another voice might soon join the chorus calling for more attention to what is going on in the Polar circle.

British Liberal MEP Diana Wallis urged the Arctic Council to "increase its capacity to deal more thoroughly with issues in the region and bring leaders together". Irish Member Pat the Cope Gallagher (who chairs Parliament's delegation to Norway and Iceland) stressed that "global warming is rapidly changing the Arctic region. As a result of melting snow and ice, new shipping routes are opening up, new fishing grounds are now available and there are greater opportunities for oil and gas exploration. It is estimated that 30% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources are within the Arctic region".