Revealed: the secret battle for the riches of the Arctic

Leaked cables show how nations are carving up pristine wilderness

As the eight Arctic nations met in Greenland yesterday, cables released by WikiLeaks gave insight into the battle for control of the world's least explored region and the resources that lie beneath its icy waters.

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The cables show that Washington has an eye on the eventual independence of Greenland, a sparsely populated territory which functions as a protectorate of Denmark, and is looking at ways to strengthen its standing in the territory.

"With Greenlandic independence glinting on the horizon, the US has a unique opportunity to shape the circumstances in which an independent nation may emerge," said one dispatch from US diplomats in 2007. "We have real security and growing economic interests in Greenland."

The presence of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at the Greenland summit shows the importance that countries are attaching to the region as the polar ice caps melt further.

An international study released last week projected that world sea levels could rise up to 1.6 metres over the next 90 years. These projections have prompted calls to increase action to reverse climate change, but have also raised speculation about how the resources of the Arctic can best be retrieved.

The region is believed to hold about a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves, and environmentalists say the thought of such riches is leading the Arctic countries to lose sight of longer-term climate issues.

"Instead of seeing the melting of the Arctic ice cap as a spur to action on climate change, the leaders of the Arctic nations are instead investing in military hardware to fight for the oil beneath it," said the Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe. "They're preparing to fight to extract the very fossil fuels that caused the melting in the first place."

Russia has the largest amount of Arctic coastline, and has a fleet of military and civilian icebreakers used on routes that traverse the Arctic. While other Arctic countries have small villages or research stations in their far northern reaches, Russia has major cities such as Murmansk inside the Arctic Circle.

The world began to take note of Russia's Arctic ambitions when a Russian expedition planted a titanium Russian tricolour in the seabed at the North Pole in 2007. One of the WikiLeaks cables showed that a top Russian politician told US diplomats that a mission to the North Pole led by the Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov was ordered by Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

The mission, and Russia's increasingly belligerent rhetoric over the Arctic, caused concern not just in Washington but also in other countries with claims to the region.

"This isn't the 15th century," said Peter MacKay, Canada's Foreign Minister, at the time. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory'," he said.

Another WikiLeaks cable shows that the Norwegian Foreign Minister sarcastically thanked his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, for making the purchase of new fighter jets "so much easier to justify... to the Norwegian public."

Another cable quotes the head of the Russian navy saying that "one cannot exclude that in the future there will be a redistribution of power, up to armed intervention."

"As so often before, this new military build-up is all about oil," said Mr Ayliffe on the military rhetoric and increased military spending among Northern countries. "We need our political leaders to make a final push to get us off oil by investing in the clean, cutting-edge technologies that can power our economies without destroying the environment or sparking tension amid the icebergs and glaciers of the High North."

Ms Clinton, speaking in Greenland yesterday, said that US ratification of a UN treaty governing the status of seabeds under international law was "overdue". Russia and other Arctic nations have signed the treaty, but the status of most of the Arctic territory is murky. This week's summit in Greenland will pass the first agreement ratified by all the Arctic nations, which will focus on search and rescue missions in the region.