Kerry Meets Swedish Officials in Advance of Arctic Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Stockholm for meetings with Swedish leaders before traveling to the northern reaches of the country for a meeting on the sweeping climate changes affecting the Arctic.

Kerry will hold talks with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt before traveling to Kiruna today to meet with counterparts from Russia and six other major stakeholders of the Arctic Council. Rapidly melting ice is changing the dynamics of the region, opening up new shipping routes that will shave transport times and making previously untouched oil and gas deposits accessible.

Members of the Council -- Russia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the U.S. and Canada -- will sign a treaty on oil-spill preparedness and response, discuss their agenda for the next two years, and possibly vote on adding to the roster of permanent observers, which includes Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Poland.

China and the European Union are among countries angling for observer status in the diplomatic club and a greater say in the region. The Council makes decisions based on consensus.

Kerry will also meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while at the Arctic Council to discuss Syria. He will hold talks with Swedish officials on Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and the EU.

Frigid Slush

The accelerating melt means that the area of ice covering the Arctic Ocean, a body of water roughly the size of Russia, had shrunk last summer by half, based on average measurements from 1980 to 2000, according to the Arctic Institute, a Washington-based policy group. The thickness of the remaining ice had dwindled by 80 percent.

The Arctic Ocean may become a frigid slush of fresh and saltwater in the summer within three to five years, according to a White House estimate. An Arctic shipping route or easier access through the Northwest Passage, now open only to fortified ice-breaking ships, would mean shorter and less expensive trips between northeastern Asia and the U.S. East Coast and Europe.

The melt also may mean easier access to oil and gas under the ocean floor, resources the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may be 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil.

Tomorrow’s conference comes amid signs that greenhouse gases blamed for global warming are accumulating at rates mankind has never experienced. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on May 10 that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million, a threshold not seen for 3 million years.

The ministers also will discuss efforts to deal with the increases in maritime traffic and oil exploration, and to cope with the impact of melting ice on indigenous Arctic communities.

In preparation for the meeting, on May 10 President Barack Obama signed a new “national strategy for the Arctic region” that lists as its first priority advancing U.S. interests -- including the protection of energy interests, maintaining free passage through Arctic seas and building regional infrastructure.

Without a clear budget plan or specific initiatives such as an upgrade to an outdated American fleet of icebreakers, “this strategy becomes nothing more than a lengthy wish list,” said Mihaela David, a fellow at the Arctic Institute.

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