TROMSOE, Norway (Reuters) - The Arctic Ocean needs tough new shipping rules as a rapid thaw opens the remote, icy region and brings risks of disasters on the scale of the Titanic, politicians and experts said on Monday.
"We need to agree on a new binding polar code" for shipping, Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told Reuters during a conference on "Arctic Frontiers" in Tromsoe, a city north of the Arctic Circle in Norway.
New shipping standards could cover designs to resist ice, new equipment and navigation rules, he said. In one step toward improved safety, the eight nations in the Arctic Council are due to agree new search and rescue rules in May.
Countries around the Arctic Ocean are shifting to consider regulations as the region opens more to oil and gas exploration and shipping.
Referring to climate change, Stoere said: "The trends are not slower in the Arctic, they are faster." But he said there were no plans to try to charge ships for access to the Arctic.
Two German cargo ships sailed the route along the north coast of Russia in 2009, cutting about 4,000 nautical miles off what would have been an 11,000-mile voyage between South Korea and the Netherlands via the Suez Canal.
Rear-Admiral David Titley, Oceanographer of the U.S. Navy, said that hazards were greatest for cruise vessels visiting the remote Arctic or Antarctic since they often had hundreds or thousands of passengers, against dozens of crew on cargo ships.
"It has not been because of skill, it has been because of luck that we have not had a Titanic-type disaster," he said in a speech. The Titanic sank in the North Atlantic in 1912 after striking an iceberg, killing 1,517 people.
Titley projected that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free for 2-3 months in summers -- long enough to attract wider interest from shipping companies -- by around mid-century. That could mean a change in world trade with greater importance for the narrow Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia as a gateway.
"The Bering strait could easily, in 30-40 years, have characteristics of the strait of Malacca or the strait or Hormuz," he said. The strait of Malacca runs between Indonesia, Malysia and Singapore and Hormuz is at the mouth of the Gulf.
Iceland's Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson also urged stricter rules for shipping and oil and gas exploration.
"The geographical situation of Iceland makes her very vulnerable to any change in the marine system, be it from climate change or pollution," he said. Oil breaks down more slowly than in warmer waters further south, such as the Gulf of Mexico, which suffered BP's giant oil spill in 2010.
He said that climate change meant fish stocks, the traditional backbone of the economy, were shifting. Mackerel were moving into Icelandic waters while capelin were moving out.
"We are a bit afraid as well," he said of a likely opening of shipping routes. "It would put a lot of responsibilities on our shoulders for search and rescue."
Russia, the United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark are members of the Arctic Council.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan