STOCKHOLM, Sweden ― According to a document leaked this week, Denmark plans to claim the North Pole, heating up the battle for the melting Arctic.
Though it sounds like an expedition cooked up by a gutsy adventurer, the Danish assertion is no daydream. Control of the North Pole could bring an economic windfall as melting ice opens up the once-inaccessible and relatively untouched waters.
The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs draft document spells out Denmark’s claim to the continental shelf at five sites near the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both self-governing Danish territories, and a section that includes the North Pole.
Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen declined Tuesday to comment directly on the report but said the nation’s claim to the pole was “nothing new.” She confirmed Denmark was in the process of formulating its policy on how to move forward in the region.
“It is expected that Denmark will be able to substantiate claims to a field that comprises of the seabed at the North Pole. But the North Pole is not an end in itself,” the minister said in a statement.
Denmark’s claim to the frozen waters isn’t the first. Countries bordering the Arctic, such as Russia, the United States, Canada and Norway, have staked out rival segments of the sea. In August 2007, two Russian mini-submarines planted the Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole although some observers later dismissed the footage from the expedition as a staged stunt.
The melting polar ice caps are driving the northern rush by opening up potential shipping lanes, fishing grounds and exploration opportunities for oil and other resources. According to the U.S.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic ice coverage observed during the month of September has declined more than 11 percent on average each decade since satellite records began tracking levels in 1979.
“What we are facing is a new Arctic,” said Niklas Granholm, deputy director of studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “And this new Arctic will have much more opportunities than in the past.”
Granholm said shipping routes could open up in as few as five to 10 years, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and shaving days and expenses off travel time. He predicted, however, that the document’s release is unlikely to spark any clashes since countries bordering the region largely expected the revelation.
The North Pole is currently a no-man’s land and under international law a country can only extend an existing claim if it proves the continental shelf shares similar geological features with its own territory. Countries can hash out their competing claims under provisions laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but whether this will happen remains to be seen. The United States, one of the six nations bordering the Arctic, hasn't ratified the treaty.
No real consensus exists on how much oil is available and accessible from ocean floor or how fast the ice will melt. But that hasn’t stopped nations from scrambling to develop Arctic policies.
“They are acting so they don’t miss the bus,” said Granholm, noting Sweden, which just took over the chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council, recently adopted its first strategy on the Arctic as a whole. The Arctic Council includes countries with territories in the Arctic Circle — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — as well as representatives of indigenous peoples.
Conservationists aren’t pleased with the territorial ambitions, however, saying countries bordering the Arctic Ocean should focus on the region’s fragile environment and not its demarcation and development.
“This is a land grab which is about getting access to resources,” said Mads Christensen, executive director for Greenpeace Nordic.
Christensen said he wasn’t surprised by the contents of the leaked document. He said nations bordering the Arctic zone having been lining up to plant their flags in the unclaimed waters but have remained relatively mum on their eventual plans for the locations.
“They are not saying anything about what they would actually do,” he said of prospective development around the region. “No one is advocating for a pathway where we look at it as a global good.”
The release of the Danish document follows a meeting of the Arctic Council in Greenland where members signed the group’s first legally binding accord on coordinating search-and-rescue operations and discussed ways to combat oil spills in the area.
Speaking before the eight-nation council, Greenland’s Premier Kuupik Kleist called for economic development to continue around the Arctic but cautioned doing so to the detriment of the environment.
“We are not here to destroy the environment we live off,” he said last week. “We do not see development and environmental protection as two opposite goals.”