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To the world's military leaders, the debate over climate change is long over. They are preparing for a new kind of Cold War in the Arctic, anticipating that rising temperatures there will open up a treasure trove of resources, long-dreamed-of sea lanes and a slew of potential conflicts.
The most immediate challenge may not be war -- both military and commercial assets are sparse enough to give all countries elbow room for a while -- but whether militaries can respond to a disaster.
"We have an entire ocean region that had previously been closed to the world now opening up," Huebert said. "There are numerous factors now coming together that are mutually reinforcing themselves, causing a buildup of military capabilities in the region. This is only going to increase as time goes on."
Global warming could trigger a stand-off between world powers over territory and resources in the Arctic as the ice thaws, Nato's chief warned yesterday.
Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Nato would need a military presence in the region to defuse tensions.
'I would be the last one to expect military conflict – but there will be a [Nato] military presence,' he said, ahead of talks with Russia on the subject next week. 'It should be a military presence that is not overdone, and there is a need for political and economic cooperation.'
For the first time, some officers worry the United States is losing its foothold as new rivals such as China prepare to muscle in.
"We are in many ways an Arctic nation without an Arctic strategy," United States Coast Guard Vice Adml Brian M Salerno told the same Washington DC event.
The United States has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which most countries use as the basis for discussing thorny Arctic territorial issues.
Arctic experts point to at least nine separate disputes within the region, from disagreements between the United States and Canada over parts of the Northwest passage to fishing conflicts that also drag in China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and others.
Russia in particular is seen to be keen to assert its presence in a region in which it has long been the dominant power.
It operates almost all of the world's 34 or so icebreakers -- albeit many of them ageing Cold War-era vessels, some powered by nuclear reactors that Western experts say could be a major danger in their own right.
Perhaps just as importantly, its navy continues to view the Arctic as its backyard, vital not just for natural resources essential to maintaining Moscow's economic clout but also the hiding ground for its ballistic missile-carrying nuclear submarine fleet.