Dealing with Territorial Claims in a Thawing Arctic

by Ricardo Cornejo, GEI Associate

Santa Claus’s days of reigning over a sovereign and independent North Pole are ceasing to exist as temperatures in the Arctic Circle warm up and the natural resource, land grab by surrounding countries nears. Danish explorers set sail once again on the quest of scientific and geological evidence to back their potential territorial claims stretching from the northernmost coast of Greenland into the North Pole. The Dane embarking left the north coast of Norway last week with the goal of collecting enough evidence to submit a formal territorial claim to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf by November of 2014. This is the second exploratory excursion into the north end of the planet for a Denmark that appears eager to claim a stake in the resource-rich area as world powers such as Russia and Canada look to make competing claims.

In collaboration with Sweden, Denmark set out on an expedition of the Arctic landmass, with the goal of gathering sufficient seismic data to support that the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater land formation expanding 1,119 miles across the Arctic Ocean, is an extension of Greenland‘s landmass. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), any country may claim territory past its 200 nautical mile economic exclusive zone in the case that the territory lies on an extension of its continental shelf. Denmark seeks to acquire enough evidence throughout the 5-week long exploration to expand its underwater territory under this rule and is likely to face confrontation from Russia and Canada as they recently both have made similar claims.

Canada has played an important role in the area as it opened an ice free waterway close to its coastline in 2008 that has since then been available for maritime traffic. In a power tug, however, Canada established that some transit through the area had to report to Canadian authorities, calling that to the attention of the United States as it contested that the route is considered an international waterway.

Russia has also taken an active role in these events as it has launched a large number of explorations into the area, including that of two submarines which planted a Russian flag deep into the sea bed beneath the North Pole claiming it to be an extension of its continental shelf in 2007. Despite the hostile nature of the issue, it may be best for the involved parties to resolve the issue peacefully, as all seem to have more to lose than to gain from military interaction. Russia, for example, has a large stake into the area as its Siberian coastline amounts to nearly half of the Arctic coastline, thereby jeopardizing its potential claims if it opts for armed conflict to secure these.

It is indeed possible that the issue could be resolved peacefully as different academic and government institutions have advocated in favor of through their studies, demonstrating how the area could be divided among the parties. Durham University, for example, completed a study in 2010 which released a map of the plausible division of territory.

Click on map for larger image.

Visit Durham University website for latest map and notes that pertain.

This proposal suggested that the area could be divided according to the amount of coastline over which each country already exercises jurisdiction, including the area that is proven to reside on its territorial landmass beyond the allotted 200 nautical miles. Based on this description, there is an overlap over the North Pole between Denmark and Russia. A plausible solution to this issue could be splitting the North Pole between all of the countries, conceding all parties Arctic territory from its coastline up to the North Pole, as shown in the map below from “Where Does the Arctic Begin? End?” By Jessica Fries-Gaithner, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, The Ohio State University, August 2011.  I have added the lines defining the pie shaped divisions, center of the pie being the north pole..

Click on map for larger image.

An educated guess would be that Denmark, who has spent a vast amount of scientific research on the matter, would be in disagreement with these lines, and therefore could advocate that the lines be drawn according to the Gakkel Ridge. This is the underwater land formation caused by the diverging of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates which could give Denmark full possession of the North Pole as Greenland is its closest landmass.  See the following map from “The Artic Ocean Sea Floor (Plate Boundaries Shown)” by Steven Dutch, 14 December 2009

Click on map for larger image.

Whichever way the stakeholder countries decide to split up the Arctic territory, it is expected to be an historic resource grab as it is projected that the area is rich in reserves of crude oil and natural gas. The United States Geological Survey has estimated that the Arctic is home to 13% of the world’s undiscovered and recoverable crude oil and 30% of the world’s undiscovered and recoverable natural gas. A challenge exists, however as 84% of these reserves are offshore, deep into the Arctic. To overcome this challenge, Russia, for example, is looking to partner up with Exxon Mobil to explore and potentially tap on to the Russian Arctic reserves, a project valued at $500 Billion. This provides some insight into the value of the potential reserves that could be dispersed throughout the sea bed of the Arctic, which is the sole motive fueling the territorial claims being made by the surrounding countries.


Danish mission to amass data for North Pole claim (by John Acher, Reuters, 27 July 2012)

LOMROG III expedition in 2012 with the Swedish icebreaker Oden (Continental Shelf Project, 11 June 2012)

Danes Seek Proof North Polar Area is Theirs (, 31 July 2012)

Military Forces Prepare for an Unfrozen Arctic (GEI News, 17 April 2012)

Denmark sets course for North Pole (by Martin Breum, presseurop, 7 August 2012)

Maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in Arctic region (International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University, September 2010)

90 Billion Barrells of Oil and 1,760 Trilliion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas Assessed in the Arctic (United States Geological Survey, 23 July 2008)

To Tap Arctic Oil, Russia Partners with Exxon Mobil (by Mike Shuster, National Public Radio, 25 May 2012)

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