There is no North Pole County Courthouse, where feuding neighbors can go to the zoning department and get a ruling on exactly where the property line is on their ice sheets. The Arctic in general has a "whose territory is it, anyway?" current running through it.

But the Arctic's future isn't just any petty squabble over boundaries. The imminent behavior of the rest of the planet, below the Arctic Circle, will likely determine what the Arctic looks like in a few decades — or if there's anything left up there.

  

"It's not too late," says Kassie Siegel, Climate Law Institute director at the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. "But we're teetering on the edge of it being too late. All we need to do is allow greenhouse gases to stay at their current levels and we'll lose very large portions of both the Arctic and the Antarctic ice sheets, and put somewhere on the order of 70 percent of the world's species at risk of extinction."

Unlike Antarctica, which has a treaty prohibiting territorial claims, there's no such blueprint for the Arctic. At least eight countries — Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland — have some control of the icy real estate. And the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 90 billion barrels of oil, 44 billion barrels of natural-gas liquids and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas up for grabs in the area.

Right now there's a double dose of danger for the Arctic. Its fragile ecosystem has been protected by ice for thousands of years. That ice is quickly disappearing. And less ice probably means more commerce, as trade routes never before navigable could be open in the summer or even longer.

"If we get increased shipping in the Arctic, we will lose the Arctic ice cap," Siegel says. "There will be no chance of saving the Arctic ecosystem, assuming ships still operate the way they do today with really dirty bunker [shipping] fuel that has high soot emissions."

The scientific community is gaining a better understanding of what's at stake.

Oceanographers, biologists and other scientists recently wrapped up a global initiative known as the International Polar Year. It revealed a lot about the disappearing Arctic ice cap, but it also fostered some hopeful communication.

"There was good international cooperation," says oceanographer David Carlson, director of the International Polar Year's program office.

"Russia allowed others to go to their coastal waters. Canada and Denmark put aside their differences and cooperated on fishery surveys in the region," Carlson adds. "For the moment we're in a pleasant age of cooperation. How long that lasts, we don't know."

In the near future, drilling and mineral rights, and geographic boundaries, may be decided by experts not well-known for flexing their political power.

Countries are allowed exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles from their coasts, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But some in the now ever-so-desirable Arctic neighborhood are itching for more. Russian geologists are trying to prove that the seabed below the North Pole is part of the Eurasian continental shelf, an area called the Lomonosov Ridge. If they're successful, the region would be under Russian control. A U.N. commission is asking for more evidence.

Not to be out-surveyed, Danish scientists are trying to prove the ridge is connected to Greenland, and Canadian scientists are looking for links between the ridge and Ellesmere Island, a Canadian territory.

As that geopolitical, mineral-hunting mapmaking plays out, Siegel says saving the Arctic is an "all in it together" deal.

"The U.S., acting by itself, can't save the Arctic," Siegel says. But without a firm commitment from the United States, he adds, the Arctic as we know it is likely history.

"The Arctic is the Earth's early warning system and the polar bear is the canary in the coal mine," Siegel says. "If we act soon enough to save the polar bear, we can prevent the worst impacts for the rest of the world, as well."

(MNN homepage photo: Imagebear/iStockphoto)