Forecast: A scramble for control of the Arctic

The melting of the Arctic has unleashed a scramble for land and ocean rights between the U.S., Canada, Norway, Denmark and Russia. This change has literally unfrozen a geopolitical stasis that lasted through two world wars and the Cold War.

OSLO, Norway — As long as the Arctic was frozen and its resources lay safely locked out of reach, neighboring countries were able to agree to disagree on who owned exactly what.

Now, the rapidly opening region may hold the world’s highest concentration of contested areas.
The Arctic is the one part of the world where Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, shows more muscle than smiles.

The government describes the high north as its top strategic priority. The country has a long-standing dispute with Russia over exactly where it should draw its ocean border. For now, the two sides have agreed on a gray area that is off-limits to fishing and oil exploration.

Norway has claimed the Svalbard Archipelago, a sparsely inhabited cluster of islands far north of the Arctic Circle, since 1925. The fact that Moscow never recognized Oslo’s claim to territorial rights extending 230 miles from the island coasts has not stopped the Norwegian Coast Guard from boarding Russian ships it says have entered its waters.

Rising temperatures in the north have led Canada and Denmark into buffoonish bout of chest-beating over Hans Island, a clump of icy rock the size of a football field that lies between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and the west coast of Greenland.

In 2005, Canada sent its defense minister, Bill Graham, to lace up his hiking boots and take a walk on the island. The move came after the two countries had taken turns landing sailors. In 2003 and 2004, Copenhagen had sent warships to erect the Danish flag. The Canadians were responding by erecting a plaque, the Maple Leaf, and an Inuit stone marker.

Both sides took out ads on Google, and the conflict nearly reached the “freedom fries” level when the Canadian parliament jokingly threatened to ban Danish pastries. “I wasn’t there to make some big dramatic statement,” Graham told the Canadian news agency when he returned from Hans Island. “My act of going there was totally consistent with the fact that Canada has always regarded this island as a part of Canada ... I was just visiting Hans Island the way I visited other facilities of Canada.”

Behind the scuffle lay a concept of sovereignty that hasn’t been much updated since the days when explorers would plant a flag and claim a land for king and country. Disputants may be able to choose to resolve conflicts in the international courts, but the cases are likely to turn on arguments that have changed little since the 15th century. Land belongs to whomever has had a physical presence — the country that historically has been able to exert control — and that is likely to prove the deciding factor.

In the run-up to the 2006 Canadian elections, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to defend Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. The next year, he announced he would be building eight new Arctic patrol ships and a new army training center in Resolute Bay, north of Baffin Island. Nearby, just inside the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, a deepwater port in Nanisivik would be refurbished for docking and refueling.

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic,” he said. “We can either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it.”

Canada’s most important clash is not with Denmark over Hans Island, but with the United States.

As with Russia and Norway in the Barents Sea, the two countries are at odds over how to draw the border between Alaska and Yukon into the water. More pressing, given the speed with which the ice is melting, is a disagreement over the status of the Northwest Passage, which Canada claims as internal waters and the United States argues is an international strait.

The treaty under which Arctic countries will most likely press their claims is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international agreement on how to divide up, manage and protect the world’s oceans, which the United States has not ratified.

Washington argues that the passage fits the legal definition of an international strait, which would prohibit Canada from blocking shipping. Canada argues that provisions for ice-covered waters will allow it to impose safety and environmental regulations.

The Inuit, Ottawa points out, have long used the frozen straits the way other nations use land.

Beginning in the 1960s, the United States has sent three ships through the passage to test Canada’s claims. After the most recent, a 1985 trip by the USCGC icebreaker Polar Sea, the two sides came to an agreement. The United States would stop sending icebreakers without its northern neighbor’s consent if Canada would agree never to withhold it.

As long as ice clogged the passage, the point was not considered worth pressing. But now that it seems increasingly viable, Washington is holding up the three trips as proof the passage was historically used as an international strait. Canada's response is that three is not enough.

“It’s almost like, How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” said Robert Huebert, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. “How many non-permissions make it an international strait? International law is very unclear on this. What happens if the ice melts for half the year? Two thirds of the year? Do you count when you had the ice cover in terms of when the agreement was reached?” 

Forecast: The global consequences of climate change

Part 1: Why America Should Care
The Florida Keys are sinking
Can insurance cover the costs of climate change?
Who will be able to afford to live on the coast?

Part 2: The Spread of Disease
Pathogens find new habitats
Countries could backslide into poverty
How disease relates to carbon dioxide

Part 3: The Arctic Melt
Easier passage through the Arctic
A scramble for control of the Arctic
Opening the Arctic to damage

(Stephan Faris is the GlobalPost environment correspondent. His new book is "Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley.")