The retreating ice offers easier access to natural resources such as gas and oil, bringing increased human activity that could threaten the already fragile arctic ecosystems and wildlife, an annual U.N. study of emerging environmental issues says.
"Changing environmental conditions in the arctic -- often considered a bellwether for global climate change -- have been an issue of concern for some time, but as of yet this awareness has not translated into urgent action," U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a release Monday.
"In fact, what we are seeing is that the melting of ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that fuelled the melt in the first place," he said. "As the 'UNEP Year Book 2013' points out, the rush to exploit these vast untapped reserves have consequences that must be carefully thought through by countries everywhere, given the global impacts and issues at stake."
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas is in the arctic, largely on the continental shelves beneath the Arctic Ocean.
Rapid environmental transformation and the rush for resources can endanger ecosystems, prevent the passage of migrating animals and severely disrupt traditional lifestyles of indigenous peoples, the U.N. report said.
The Arctic Council -- consisting of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States -- has a crucial role to play in ensuring any resource exploitation is done responsibly, the report said.