By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
They said existing laws governing everything from fish stocks to bio-prospecting by pharmaceutical companies were inadequate for the polar regions, especially the Arctic, where the area of summer sea ice is now close to a 2007 record low.
"Many experts believe this new rush to the polar regions is not manageable within existing international law," said A.H. Zakri, Director of the U.N. University's Yokohama-based Institute of Advanced Studies.
Fabled shipping passages along the north coast of Russia and Canada, normally clogged by thick ice, have both thawed this summer, raising the possibility of short-cut routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Dozens of legal experts are meeting in Iceland from September 7-9 to debate the legal needs of the polar regions. Other threats include a surge in tourism, with 40,000 visitors to Antarctica in 2007 against just 1,000 in 1987.
Many legal specialists believe there is a lack of clarity in existing laws about shipping, mining, sharing of fish stocks drawn northwards by the melting of ice, and standards for clearing up any oil spills far from land.
"Oil in particular and risks of shipping in the Arctic are big issues. It's incredibly difficult to clean up an oil spill on ice," said conference chairman David Leary of the Institute of Advanced Studies, which is organizing the conference with Iceland's University of Akureyri.
"The question is: do we deal with it in terms of the existing laws or move to a new, more global framework for the polar regions?" he told Reuters.
Some experts say the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is unclear, for instance, when it speaks of the rights of states to impose restrictions -- such as compulsory pilots for ships -- off their coasts in "particularly severe climatic conditions" or when ice covers the sea for "most of the year."
With the ice receding fast, defining what conditions are "particularly severe" could be a problem, said law professor Tullio Scovazzi of the University of Milano-Bicocca.
Leary said the eight nations with Arctic territories -- the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland -- have so far preferred to limit discussion to existing international laws.
The WWF environmental group is among those urging a new U.N. convention to protect the Arctic, partly fearing that rising industrial activity will increase the risk of oil spills like the Exxon Valdez accident off Alaska.
"We think there should be new rules, stricter rules. We are proposing a new convention for the protection of the Arctic Ocean," said Tatiana Saksina of the WWF.
Alaska's state governor Sarah Palin, Republican vice presidential candidate in November 4's U.S. election, is an advocate of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A boom in tourism in Antarctica meanwhile risks the accidental introduction of new species to an environment where the largest land creature is a flightless midge.
Bio-prospecting may also need new rules. Neural stem cells of Arctic squirrels could help treat human strokes, while some Arctic fish species have yielded enzymes that can be used in industrial processes.