The Arctic region has long been considered international territory. Five countries—Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States—share a border with the frozen Arctic Ocean. Some of these nations have claimed parts of the region to be their territory. Underlying the interests in the area are potentially vast oil, gas and other resources, as well as the opening up of lucrative passages for trade and economic activity. As a result, these nations have been vying for dominance in the Arctic.
In early August 2007, traveling in a mini-submarine, members of Russia’s parliament planted their country's flag four kilometers (2.5 miles) below the North Pole1 at the climax of a mission to back up Russian claims to the region’s mineral riches.
Apparently the first expedition of its kind to reach the ocean floor under the North Pole, the aim was to establish if a section of seabed passing through the pole, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is in fact an extension of Russia's landmass.
Russia of course claims it is. Yet, the Washington Post notes the US State Department’s response that the best available scientific evidence suggests the ridges in question are oceanic by nature and thus not part of any country’s continental shelf2.. In addition, the Russian media reported that the US had started its own similar expedition earlier3 and that this may have been a race between the two nations.
The headlines caused by the Russian claim may appear to have been a sudden interest, but the interested parties have, for years, been interested in the potential the Arctic offers.
The US Geological Survey, a U.S. government agency, believes that the region may house approximately 25% of the world’s oil reserves.
Gas, even diamonds, are supposedly to be found there too.
Also lucrative is the opening up of access and trade routes as climate change breaks up more ice. The famed North West Passage across the top of Canada, and the North East Passage (also known as Northern Sea Route) across the top of Russia could become permanent passages4, for example.
Russia’s claims, at time of writing, of course are disputed given the potential interests in the resources and potential trade routes emerging in the region.
As early as the 1920s, Russia (then the Soviet Union) made claims to the Arctic. Russia is, however, a party to the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, limiting it, and the other Arctic four to 200 miles of territorial waters. Under the treaty, these nations are allowed to file claim to the UN commission for more territory. But they have to prove that their continental shelves are geographically linked to the Arctic seabed.
This is what Russia is now claiming (and has done before in 2001, unsuccessfully), and awaiting verification. The Telegraph summarized how all the other nations were interested in similar claims, too:
However, it is not just Russia that is claiming territory in the region; most other countries have, or had, disputes with others. For example, between
Canada and the US
Canada and Denmark
Russia and the US
The BBC provides a summary of some of the disputes:
(The Telegraph also goes into Canada’s rivalry with the US and Denmark over different parts of the Arctic region9 in further detail.)
And the Washington Post also adds to this:
What prompted the interest in the region in the first place? Another article in the Telegraph from 2004, suggests that Canada first laid claim to the North Pole in the 1950s11 though sovereignty was never granted. Recently, in 2004, Denmark also launched a bid to claim it. That prompted an unseemly scramble among Canadian and Russian scientists who are busily preparing rival arguments over sovereignty.
Accompanying these disputes, claims and counter-claims is inconsistency in arguments, or even double standards. Robert Bridge, writing in the Moscow News for example, notes that while Canada was understandably incensed at Russia’s recent stunt, they have done similar things in the past:
Bridge also noted MacKay’s erroneous claim that the Arctic was Canadian territory when MacKay said, It’s clear. It’s our country, it’s our property, it’s our water… The Arctic is Canadian. As mentioned above, it is international territory, although various nations are submitting claims, none of which to date have been successful.
And as DefenseNews.com and the Washington Times reported,
Canada is looking to increase its military presence in the region
13. It is likely that Russia will be doing so too. Nonetheless many experts find that the territory is still very challenging to conquer even though climate change may unfortunately help create more political as well as environmental challenges.
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Added a small note on the impact to Arctic biodiversity from climate change
October 22, 2009
Added an image showing what new shipping routes through the arctic may look like, and added a section discussing the climatic and environmental impacts to the region and the effects on the indigenous populations, including images and a video.