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The Arctic.

Not long ago, the Arctic Council worked in relative obscurity, focusing mainly on protecting the environment and largely ignored even by the eight countries that created it. Not any more.

A conference in Brussels this week underscores how the council has been thrust into the centre of a debate over hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of commercial opportunities, weighed against serious environmental risks.

The rush to develop the Arctic's resources and open shipping lanes has given the council new importance and countries are clamouring to join. This year, China, India, Japan, Singapore, Italy and South Korea became observers, joining six other nations; the European Union is eager to sign on.

There is also a push to include businesses in the discussion about the Arctic's future. Canada, which recently began a two-year term as the council's chair, wants to create a Circumpolar Business Forum to work within the council on economic issues.

Recent interest shows how development of the Arctic has become an international concern, as global warming presents new opportunities for mining, oil exploration and transportation.

It also marks an end to the once cozy, club-like nature of the Norway-based council, which was founded 17 years ago by Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

"When the council started in 1996, the Arctic was not a big issue in most national capitals including in Canada," Bernard Funston, chair of the Canadian Polar Commission, said during a break at the Arctic Futures conference, convened Wednesday and attended by several council diplomats.

Mr. Funston, who helped create the council, said the lack of attention was a blessing because it allowed scientists from the member countries to form a close working relationship.

Everything changed in 2006, he added, when NASA released pictures of the melting ice cap and Russia staked a claim to the North Pole.

"In one year, you had this new perception of accessibility [to the Arctic] followed by a geopolitical act, as some interpreted it, and a race was on," he said. "The council very quickly went from a back corner in national capitals to be a front-burner, geopolitical issue."

The race to the riches of the Far North hasn't slowed. The Arctic Futures conference heard that the Far North contains roughly 20 per cent of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves and that 18 companies recently won exploration licences in Norway's Barents Sea, now one of the world's hottest areas for drilling.

Shipping is increasing through Russia's northern waterways, which is twice as fast as sending a ship to Asia through the Suez Canal. And Finland is forecasting $200-billion worth of development in mining and oil in its Arctic region over the next 10 years.

Several countries, including Canada, are also making claims to the Lomonosov Ridge, a giant shelf that spreads across much of the Arctic.

Meanwhile, global warming has melted 12 metres of ice in Greenland since 1990, hampering the permafrost across the Arctic, and could cost the planet $60-trillion over the next 100 years, the conference heard.

That has transformed the Arctic Council into a diplomatic mission with a permanent secretariat in Norway and powers to negotiate treaties. By 2012, France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany joined as observers along with several indigenous groups. The addition of China, India and the others this year emphasizes the global outlook of the council.

"Our view is that we are maintaining the global nature of the Arctic," Hannu Halinen, Finland's ambassador to the council said during a break at the Arctic conference.

Mr. Hainen is co-chairing a committee to set up the business forum and said it will likely include companies from around the world, including in Europe and China. That's a reflection of the important role they are playing in the region, he said.

"We need to have the Arctic Council, we need to strengthen that as the key body. But we also need a meaningful engagement with the key non-Arctic countries."