Sovereignty issues loom as Arctic sea ice shrinks

As Arctic ice disappears — a factor that is also at play in this summer's search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin's 1845 mission — the world focus on the region's resources intensifies, and the question of who owns the Arctic becomes much more than an academic discussion.

Global focus on region's resources intensifying

A Rossiya nuclear icebreaker navigates back from the North Pole after providing support to a Russian minisubmarine mission to the Arctic Ocean floor in August 2007. Two small Russian submarines went to the floor of the Arctic Ocean in support of Kremlin efforts to claim the energy wealth beneath the region and rebuild Russia's status as a great power. (Vladimir Chistyakov/Associated Press)

With rapidly shrinking Arctic ice and expanding interest in northern shipping and resource exploitation, issues of sovereignty loom ever larger over the northern landscape. 

The Arctic region is incredibly vast. While land boundaries between the Arctic nations are, for the most part, clearly established, ownership of more than 14 million square kilometres of Arctic Ocean — an area equal to the size of Russia — is not quite as clear. 

But one thing is certain. As Arctic ice disappears — a factor that is also at play in this summer's search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin's 1845 mission — the world focus on the region's resources intensifies, and the question of who owns the Arctic becomes much more than an academic discussion. 

Canadian Forces Northern Area troops raise a Canadian flag on Hans Island, Nunavut, on July 13, 2005. (Cpl. David McCord/DND/Canadian Press)

"The Arctic is a rapidly changing region," says Charles Emmerson, author of The Future History of the Arctic

"Access to some parts of the Arctic, particularly coastal areas of interest to oil and gas companies and to shippers, is expected to increase as a function of climate change and improved technologies." 

Recent estimates put Arctic undersea oil reserves at 13 per cent of the global total of undiscovered oil, and natural gas at 30 per cent of the total.

One microcosm of sovereignty issues in the North — and how they could be solved — is the three-decade-old land ownership dispute between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island, a speck of geography in the High Arctic between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

In an episode that gained media attention in the 1980s as "flag warfare and bottle diplomacy," says Michael Byers, author of Who Owns the Arctic, the Danish military would plant its red-and-white Dannebrog flag and leave a bottle of Schnapps when visiting the island.

Whenever the Canadian military arrived, it would yank out the Danish flag, replace it with the Maple Leaf and switch the Schnapps with a bottle of Canadian Club. And so on.

While both countries claim sovereignty over the 1.3 kilometre-long island, satellite imagery shows that the boundary runs right through it. So both countries may end up sharing the rocky outcropping. 

Just cut it in half

"It's the only disputed land territory anywhere in the circumpolar Arctic, and at the same time it would be ridiculously easy to resolve," says Byers. "Simply divide the island exactly in half.

"We should resolve this dispute, not because it's going to cause friction, but because it could provide positive momentum towards resolving more difficult disputes," Byers says. 

"Hans Island is an opportunity to get the ball rolling in terms of more Arctic diplomacy."

Diplomacy may be needed to prevent sovereignty disputes in the vast Arctic Ocean.

Fortunately, some rules of ownership are already in place.

The Law of the Sea Convention, established by the United Nations, signed in 1984 and ratified by Canada 20 years later, grants certain set areas of the Arctic sea floor to the five circumpolar nations — Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark. 

Each country now owns the 370 kilometres out from its shoreline, and an additional 278 kilometres out from any area scientifically proven to be continental shelf.

'All of the Arctic coastal states are preparing to claim sovereignty rights to the seabed off their coastline, but no one is claiming the whole ocean," says Byers.

"It's actually a carefully regulated process under the UN Law of the Sea Convention. It's determined largely on the basis of science as to the shape and geology of the ocean floor. There is an awful lot of co-operation taking place."

Yet there may be cracks developing in Arctic sea floor sovereignty co-operation.

The Lomonosov Ridge extends 2,000 kilometres across the Arctic Ocean from Russia's New Siberian Islands to Canada's Ellesmere Island. 

Russia claims that the ridge — actually a mountain range — is an extension of the Asian continental shelf. Canada and Denmark say that it's an extension of the North American continental shelf. 

Waiting for the science

"Any country that can successfully establish a claim will gain control of a vast amount of sea floor resources in the central portion of the Arctic Ocean," says geologist Hobart King, who manages a website.

Where there is doubt about boundaries, shared jurisdiction may come into play.

'We don't know whether there will be any overlaps in claims.'—Michael Byers

"The science hasn't been completed yet. We don't know whether there will be any overlaps in claims and if there are, then one of the solutions would be shared jurisdiction," says Byers. 

"There is a legal claim process that has been in place for three decades — [a] science-based process. Everyone is co-operating, to the point where Canada and the U.S. have been mapping, with a Canadian and U.S. icebreaker working in tandem.

"The Russians and Canadians have been sharing their scientific data," says Byers.

"There's a lot of interest in establishing coastal state jurisdiction according to the rules."

Co-operation urged

But what happens if sovereignty issues arise between Canada and other nations over disputed Arctic areas such as the Lomonosov Ridge, or jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage as a navigation route?

"Full co-operation of all the Arctic countries is imperative to prevent infringement on their sovereign rights," say Shelagh Grant, author of the award-winning book Polar Imperatives: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America.

Grant believes that in order to prevent a major loss of Arctic sovereignty, Canada should upgrade and expand its fleet of Arctic coast guard vessels, as well as build a deep-sea port as a summer base near the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.

In 2007, the Harper government announced that it would start construction in 2010 of a deep-sea port at the former mining site of Nanisivik on northern Baffin Island, with a completion date of 2015. Construction has not yet started. 

"Canada no longer has the luxury to dither and debate," says Grant. "If this government fails to take immediate action, Stephen Harper may well go down as the prime minister responsible for the nation's loss of control over its Arctic waters."

In 2013, the UN will once again open up Convention on the Law of the Sea discussions to determine the circumpolar nations’ Arctic Ocean boundaries, based on each northern nation’s latest science data.