The North Pole: Does Denmark have a legitimate claim?

Denmark has submitted a claim to the UN saying Greenland is linked to the North Pole. Figuring out if that's true, however, will require a bit more than that.

Scandinavian country files claim to United Nations

Denmark has for several years planned to lay claim to the North Pole. (John McConnico/Associated Press)

The North Pole not only enjoys a treasured place in the popular imagination — it's where Santa lives — but it is also seen as a place of potential mineral wealth.

And Denmark thinks it owns the place.

On Monday, the Scandinavian country submitted its claim on the North Pole to the UN, citing scientific data that purports to show that Greenland's continental shelf is connected to a ridge that runs beneath the Arctic Ocean and through the North Pole, thus giving the Danes a claim to the specific site — along with Russia and Canada.

Here's a closer look at the territorial claims on the North Pole.

What, exactly, is the North Pole?

The North Pole sits in the Arctic Ocean and is the northernmost point of the Earth's axis. (It is not the same as the North Magnetic Pole, which is the point at which the planet's magnetic field points vertically downwards.) The pole is about 725 kilometres (450 miles) north of Greenland, which belongs to Denmark.

While it provides a convenient dividing line that enables us to better understand daylight and weather patterns, the North Pole is really just a point on a map, says Rob Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary with an expertise in circumpolar relations.

"It's completely necessary for understanding the geology and circulation patterns and night and all the rest," he says. But it's a part of the Arctic "that in my view has always been artificially added into the system."

What is believed to be under it?

The Arctic has increasingly become an area of interest for oil and gas exploration. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that as much as 22 per cent of the world's undiscovered and recoverable resources lay in the Arctic. 

 As well, the gradual warming of Arctic waters has made the region increasingly attractive for shipping lanes.

Inuuteq Olsen, the minister for Greenland at the Danish embassy in Washington, D.C., says "very little is known at this point" about what lies in the seabed under the North Pole, largely because of the "challenges of doing scientific work in an ice-filled area."

He acknowledges "there could be minerals as well as oil and gas, but it's a big but, because it's an unexplored area when it comes to geology and natural resources."

What do international laws say about claims?

Territorial claims are largely governed by the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), which defines what rights and responsibilities countries have with respect to their use of the world's oceans off their coasts and the natural resources found in them.

The Danes believe the existence of an extended continental shelf confirms their territorial claim on the North Pole. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

According to UNCLOS, each coastal nation can claim up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) beyond its coast as an "exclusive economic zone," meaning it has rights to any living and non-living resources found in that area, from fisheries to oil.

A country can also make a claim of an "extended continental shelf" that extends beyond those 200 nautical miles.

In order to do so, a country "has to show that the seabed beyond 200 nautical miles is a prolongation of its land mass," says Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, a distinguished senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.

What specifically is Denmark is claiming?

Denmark claims that it has a continental shelf that extends under the North Pole, thus allowing it to claim the North Pole itself. The Danes are arguing that the seabed under the North Pole is part of its extended continental shelf, and not what is called oceanic crust, which it would not be able to lay claim to.

In an extended continental shelf, a country only has rights to the non-living resources such as oil and gas and "a few sedimentary living resources," says Riddell-Dixon, which she explains as "little creatures that can't propel themselves."

What other countries have laid claim?

All five Arctic countries — Denmark, the United States, Russia, Norway and Canada — have claimed areas surrounding the North Pole.

Prior to Denmark's claim, only Canada and Russia had expressed interest in the North Pole.

In 2007, Russia provocatively planted a one-metre-tall titanium Russian flag in the seabed under the North Pole.

The UN commission will not adjudicate competing territorial claims, says Riddell-Dixon. Rather, once it has determined that the science behind a claim is solid — which can take a decade or more — the commission will leave the dispute to the competing nations to sort out.

To solve a maritime-boundary dispute, the first thing you do under international law is draw a line between the competing nations and split the distance in half. Whichever country is closer to the geographic point of contention would then likely have territorial claims, Riddell-Dixon says.

She says that if you were to undertake that process between Greenland and northern Canada, "there's absolutely no doubt that the North Pole is most definitely closer to Greenland than it is to Canada."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?