U.S. Northern Command took sole responsibility for the Arctic this week in another sign of the growing importance of the region in the face of global climate change, according to the Department of Defense.

The job of securing the Arctic was handed to the military command -- which now oversees the United States, Canada and Mexico -- on Wednesday when President Barack Obama signed changes to the military's unified command plan, the DOD said in a news release. The command plan is regularly reviewed and updated.

In the past, Northern Command shared responsibility for the frigid region with U.S. Pacific and European commands, the department said. The change this week also gives Northern Command security oversight of Alaska, which had been split between two commands.

Temperatures are rising and once-permanent ice is melting in the Arctic, which could spur mineral exploration and open sea lanes that promise to change the face of trade in the Northern Hemisphere.

For several years, the U.S. Navy has been pressing the importance of the Arctic and the changes that will reshape it in coming decades. The supreme allied commander of NATO, Adm. James Stavridis, warned in October that the changes could open a "zone of conflict."

A National Academy of the Sciences report released last month said the chance of conflict remains low but the U.S. military has largely lost its ability to fight in the Arctic cold and the Navy and Marine Corps should begin training immediately.

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