The experts stressed the need for a new set of rules in Iceland at a UN-affiliated conference marking the International Polar Year.
Due to climate change, the ancient ice lid on the Arctic Ocean is fast disappearing, creating new opportunities for fishers and resource companies, and opening a potential new, far shorter ocean route between Europe and Asia, a prospect already drawing billions of dollars in investment in ice-class ships.
Antarctica, meanwhile, is witnessing a growing parade of tourists (40,000, including tour staff, in 2007), as well as researchers (now about 4,000 in summer occupying 37 permanent stations and numerous field camps) and companies interested in exploiting the biological properties of that continent's "extremophiles."
"However, many experts believe this new rush to the polar regions is not manageable within existing international law," said A.H. Zakri, Director of the United Nations University's Yokohama-based Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS).
According to Zakri, pressure on Earth's unique and highly vulnerable polar areas is mounting quickly and an internationally agreed set of rules built on new realities appears needed to many observers.
In Iceland, leading scholars will detail fast-emerging issues in international law and policy in the polar regions caused by such developments as the opening up of the Northwest Passage.
"They will identify priorities for law-making and research and offer their best advice to decision makers, who clearly need to act even faster than the changing environment," said Zakri.
Problems forecasted for the Arctic as its ice recedes include overfishing; pollution from ships and offshore extraction of oil and gas; oil spills; and Invasion of alien species carried by ships' ballast water.
"Overfishing, the result in part of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, is already occurring in the Okhotsk and Bering Seas," said conference presenter Dr. Tatiana Saksina of the World Wildlife Fund's International Arctic Programme.
"Agreements are needed now to regulate shared and straddling fish stocks and to protect fish migrating to higher latitudes in search of colder waters," she added.
According to Saksina, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive international environmental regime specially tailored for the unique arctic conditions. This regime is needed before natural resource development expands widely.
"The earliest date of summer Arctic Ocean without ice may be 2013. The longer the delay in developing international environmental rules, the more likely it is that unplanned and unregulated development will damage the very resources most necessary for a sustainable future in the Arctic," she said.