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Forecast: A scramble for control of the Arctic

Part 3: The Arctic melt

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.