The Arctic is thawing faster than lawmakers can formulate rules to limit the environmental threat of heavy fuel oil pollution from ships plying an increasingly popular trade route.
Average Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as elsewhere in the world and the polar ice cap's permanent cover is shrinking at a rate of around 10pc per decade.
By the end of this century, summers in the Arctic could be free of ice.
As the ice melts, shipping of gas, coal and diesel through the region has increased. Russia, in particular, is keen to expand shipping through the Arctic given its rich natural resources and efforts to cut costs. It aims to cut journey times between Europe and Asia by up to 30pc.
"It is time for regulators to wake up and realise that the Arctic is melting away right in front of us," said Whit Sheard of the Circumpolar Conservation Union (CCU) green group.
"Common-sense regulations, integrated ocean planning, and explicit protections are all needed before the resources of the region are targeted for exploitation or before it becomes a major shipping route."
While there is a non-binding agreement in place between Arctic states aimed at environmental protection, campaigners say there has been no progress on regulating the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO), which is banned in the Antarctic.
Regulations for the Antarctic came into effect in 2011 after being adopted by the United Nations' shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It was arguably an easier sell as fewer commercial cargo ships operate there.
Any effort to tackle the issue in the Arctic is likely to take some time even after last year's climate deal in Paris, which commits nations to curb emissions. The Paris deal did not set specific targets for commercial shipping, leaving the IMO to take up the charge.
HFO was not the top focus of an Arctic Council meeting on environmental protection earlier this month, leading campaigners to seek more action.
They plan to raise the issue at the IMO's next marine environmental protection committee session in April.
According to a 2009 study by the intergovernmental Arctic Council, the release of oil into the Arctic's marine environment "either through accidental release, or illegal discharge, is the most significant threat from shipping activity".
Last year, the US, Russia and other Arctic nations signed an agreement to bar their fishing fleets from seas around the North Pole.
The code imposed prohibitions on the carriage of oil or oily mixtures from any ship into the sea and prevented pollution from garbage and noxious liquid substances. But it only "encouraged" ships not to use or carry HFO in the Arctic.
A 2015 study by the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis estimated that two-thirds of the volume of world trade that goes through the Suez Canal could be rerouted via the Arctic, but it gave no timeframes.
Suez accounts for an estimated 8pc of world seaborne trade.
Looser ice may make travel easier, but it also means icebergs and there is the risk of vessels being holed. Insurers are also looking for more clarity.
"The level of regulation applying to these new waterways has, perhaps inevitably, not had time to catch up with the physical changes to the Arctic environment," said Joe Hughes, chairman of shipping insurer American Club. (Reuters)