Canada, Russia, the United States and their smaller circumpolar neighbours have agreed how to divvy up the fast-warming and fragile Arctic, but only for search-and-rescue responsibilities, leaving aside the vexed issues of sovereignty, oil drilling, pollution and shipping.
The search-and-rescue treaty, to be signed Thursday, is the first significant achievement of the eight-nation Arctic Council, and was hailed as evidence that the Arctic nations are committed to working together, although that co-operation will be tested in settling overlapping claims.
"There's every reason to regard this as a win-win," said Michael Byers, author of Who Owns the Arctic and holder of the Canada research chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. "The beauty of the search-and rescue-treaty is that it underlines and pulls together existing co-operation."
The Globe and Mail has obtained a draft version of the map setting out search-and-rescue zones, and, for Canadians, the boundaries will look familiar. The western boundary of Canada's vast 5.7-million-square-kilometre sector - an area five times bigger than Ontario - follows the Alaska-Yukon border to the North Pole, a maritime boundary line long disputed by the United States. But in signing the treaty, Canada, like the other seven nations, explicitly accepted that the search-and-rescue boundaries won't be used as precedents in the tangle of unresolved boundary disputes and overlapping claims in the resource-rich top of the world.
Ministers are to approve the final version Thursday at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland. The ministerial gathering is also expected to select between Tromso, Norway, and Reykjavik, Iceland, as the site of a permanent secretariat for the circumpolar group.
Following the voters' rejection of former foreign minister Lawrence Cannon in the May 2 federal election, the Canadian delegation to Nuuk will be led by Health Minster Leona Aglukkaq, the sole MP from Nunavut. She will join U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the foreign ministers from Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Sweden.
The search-and-rescue pact may be a model for future co-operation among the circumpolar nations, even as unresolved and contentious boundary disputes fester. Next up, an agreement on how to cope with pollution from inevitable oil spills and other environmental disasters as the pace of drilling increases and the retreating ice opens shipping shortcuts.
Along with the consequences of global warming affecting the Arctic at a far faster rate than elsewhere, the dramatic receding of the polar ice cap "also creates some opportunities," David Balton, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Oceans and Fisheries, said at a pre-summit briefing. "Much of the world's untapped oil and gas resources are in the Arctic," he said, adding that the Arctic Council was moving to tackle the rapidly increasing pace of activity in the High Arctic.
The summit is also expected to consider applications from major nations - including China, Japan and Korea - seeking observer status in the circumpolar club, largely because of their interest in undersea resources and the Northwest and Northeast shipping lanes.
While the summit will consider a range of activities, the great powers have kept military deployments - including continuing under-ice patrols by nuclear-powered U.S. and Russian submarines - outside the council's remit.
"We don't see a problem with militarization in the Arctic," Mr. Balton said. "There's already good co-operation among the militaries."
That co-operation will be essential if major search-and-rescue operations are required.
Canada, for instance, has no dedicated search-and-rescue assets based north of the Arctic Circle. The Canadian Forces' 14 Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters are deployed on the east and west coasts. The nearest dedicated search-and-rescue aircraft are four 40-year-old Twin Otter utility aircraft based in Yellowknife.
The search-and-rescue treaty will be the first binding pact agreed by the Arctic Council. Sweden will take over the rotating, two-year chairmanship of the council. Canada, which held the chairmanship for the council's initial two years, will take over again in 2013.
Critics of the council - especially environmental groups in Scandinavia and aboriginal peoples throughout the circumpolar world - have accused it of failing to deal with the most urgent and potentially devastating climate-change issues.
The council, which operates by consensus, is limited to dealing only with what all eight governments agree to put before it.