The Arctic is expected to become more important in the coming decades as climate change makes natural resources and transport routes more accessible. Satellite data collected since 1979 shows that both the thickness of the ice in the Arctic and range of sea ice have decreased substantially, especially during the summer months. According to the United States’ National Snow and Ice Data Center, the amount of Arctic ice (usually at a minimum during September) was 3.61 million square kilometers (1.39 million square miles) in September 2012 — close to 49 percent lower than the average amount of ice seen between 1979 and 2000.
The melting of the ice facilitates natural resource exploration in the high north. U.S. Geological Survey estimates from 2008 suggest that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic Circle.
Reflecting the growing interest in the region, the Arctic Council granted six new countries (China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore) observer status during a May 15 ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. By admitting more observers, the Arctic Council — an organization that promotes cooperation among countries with interests in the Arctic — will likely become more important as a forum for discussions on Arctic issues. However, this does not necessarily mean it will be able to establish itself as a central decision-making body regarding Arctic matters.