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Russia: Thaw In Relations Brings Cooperation In Arctic

Washington, 16 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The icy regions of the northern polar ice caps have long been a mystery to most scientists around the world.

Much of the information gathered in the region was kept secret by military and intelligence agencies in the United States and the Soviet Union because the Arctic was considered a potential staging area for World War III.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, the information about the region gathered by the intelligence agencies and military commands over the last 50 years, is now being made available.

U.S. Vice President Al Gore Tuesday announced the release, on a computer disk, of the first of three Arctic Ocean Atlasses at a special ceremony in Washington at the National Geographic Society. Gore said with the release of the first atlas, the available information about the region has more than doubled.

It is a compilation of data gathered by U.S. and Soviet scientists, which both countries say is no longer vital to national security. Gore called the data "a virtual time machine." He said the cooperation on compiling the information was a "truly important and historical new step for science ... and the relationship between the people of Russia and the United States."

Gore, a long-time environmentalist, began working on releasing classified information about the Arctic when he was a Senator in 1990. By the time he was inaugurated Vice President in January of 1993, a team of U.S. scientists had already examined the vast files of classified information gathered by U.S. satellites, aircraft, ships, submarines and other devices. But Gore said the American data alone was not sufficient to understand the Arctic.

After U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin put Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in charge of a commission designed to bolster relations between the two countries, Gore suggested to Chernomyrdin that Russia and the United States could share information about the Arctic. The Soviets had intensly studied the region since 1937 and collected about 70 percent of the available information.

Gore said Chernomyrdin was initially leery, but he quickly warmed up to the idea. Following months of intense negotiations teams of scientists from both countries set to work on compiling the current atlas.

"Some of science's most sought after data has now come in from the cold," Gore told the news conference.

He said he is confident the scientific community will make good use of the data and "I hope they will bring us closer to understanding our planet."

Gore compared the potential use of the knowledge of the Arctic to the scientists' current reliance on the El Nino effect in the Pacific Ocean. The term El Nino comes from the Spanish for "Christ Child" and is used to describe warm ocean currents in the Pacific which have world-wide climactic effects. When the ocean warms up, typhoons intensify in Asia and floods and droughts have been noted in North America.

James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said because scientists now better understand the El Nino effects, industry has been able to save at least $2 billion by preparing for floods or draughts.

U.S. Admiral Paul Gaffney, Commander of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, said the data provides a greater understanding of the Arctic Ocean currents and should help scientists track radioactive waste the Soviets disposed in the region. He said the United States never dumped any radioactive materials there.

The Russian and U.S. scientists will also combine their knowledge to develop an Atlas on the Arctic in the summer, Arctic ice and Arctic meteorology.