Published August 22, 2008 09:20 AM

Receding Arctic icepack opens new shipping frontier

BARROW, Alaska -- Rapidly melting ice on Alaska's Arctic is opening up a new navigable ocean in the extreme north, allowing oil tankers, fishing vessels and even cruise ships to venture into a realm once trolled mostly by indigenous hunters.

The Coast Guard expects so much traffic that it opened two temporary stations on the nation's northernmost waters, anticipating the day when an ocean the size of the contiguous United States could be ice-free for most of the summer.

"We have to prepare for the world coming to the Arctic," said Rear Adm. Gene Brooks, commander of the Coast Guard's Alaska district.

Scientists say global warming has melted the polar sea ice each summer to half the size it was in the 1960s, opening vast stretches of water. Last year, it thawed to its lowest level on record.

The rapid melting has raised speculation that Canada's Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans could one day become a regular shipping lane. And there is a huge potential for natural resources in a region that may contain as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

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