A Hot Spot in the Land of Ice


The warmer the climate is in the Arctic, the cooler the relations are between the northern countries. It took a third of the last century for the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover to shrink by one third. The natural wealth of the Arctic water area has become more accessible, and international cooperation in this region has turned into rivalry. There is something to fight for, indeed. According to official data of the United States Geological Survey, almost a quarter of the world's hydrocarbon resources are concentrated in the depths of the Arctic: 90 billion barrels of oil, more than 48 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of gas condensate. And since there is no single international treaty defining the legal status of the Arctic, several nations have already claimed the right to the exclusive possession of promising territories.

In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted. For coastal states, the shelf boundaries were set at 200 miles, and all other ocean expanses were recognized as “the common heritage of mankind,” that is, international waters. However, parties to the convention have the right to apply to a special UN commission to expand their shelf zone. For example, in cases where the ocean floor is in fact a continuation of the mainland or island shelf.

A Hot Spot in the Land of Ice

The Arctic (21 million square kilometers bounded by the Arctic Circle) occupies one sixth of the surface of the planet. These are the margins of the continents of Eurasia and North America, the high-latitude parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Arctic Ocean with islands (approximately 14 million square kilometers). The total length of the Arctic coast is 38,700 km. It unites five countries: Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway and Denmark. Finland, Iceland and Sweden have no ocean borders, but are also polar states. The Sovereign Eight in 1996 established the Arctic Council - an international forum for solving global problems (primarily environmental) of this as yet harsh-climate region. The six most influential communities of the indigenous peoples of the North have also become regular participants with voting rights. Another 13 countries are members of the Arctic Council with the status of observers: the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Poland, France, Japan, India, Singapore and Switzerland.

The list is sure to grow - there are enough nations willing to join the council. It is also open to international, state and non-governmental organizations. Observers are actively involved in discussions and the preparation of documents on important issues and make scientific and financial contributions to all landmark projects. Thus, the land of the great white silence is gradually moving from the regional conflict-free level to the global level - not quite so peaceful. More than 20 countries have already announced their national strategic interests in the high latitudes of the planet. There were also territorial claims to each other. Here are just a few examples:

Canada and Denmark cannot divide a three-kilometer ridge of the icy rocks of Hans Island (Turkupaluk). With disrespectful persistence, their citizens take turns hoisting their national flags on the island. The Maple Leaf is engaged in a tug of war with the Star-Spangled Banner over Machias Seal Island, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the border in the Beaufort Sea. Meanwhile, the United States claims territory to control the Northern Sea Route. Russia, of course, is strongly opposed.

Ireland has yet to resolve its dispute with Iceland, Denmark and the UK over the Faroe Islands Shelf. In turn, Ireland has sea claims from the above mentioned countries and from Belgium! The Icelanders are angry with the Danes and the British over the Rockall Shelf. Fishermen from the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and ... Poland do not want to miss their chunks of the "Arctic pie" either.

A Hot Spot in the Land of Ice

Of particular note is the success of Norway. Ten years ago, the descendants of the Vikings were the first to achieve an increase in the exclusive economic zone of 235,000 square meters stopping only 600 miles from the North Pole. However, they believe there are grounds for further expansion. The dialogue between Norway and Russia over these issues is not going smoothly. In 2010, these countries divided between themselves about 175 thousand square meters of the oil and gas rich waters of the Barents Sea, but they were not able to resolve all contradictions.

Arguably, Arctic players put the highest stakes on the Lomonosov Ridge. Its length is about 1,800 km stretching from the Novosibirsk Islands through the center of the ocean to the Canadian island of Ellesmere. According to experts, about 100 billion tons of hydrocarbons in oil equivalent are concentrated there. Russia has put in a claim for a part (1.2 million square km) of this treasure trove. Several Russian expeditions collected evidence that the ridge was an underwater part of the Siberian continental platform. And, in principle, the scientific world agreed to the continental origin of the ridge (10-15 million years ago), but Canada suggested its own version. The mountains, hidden by the ocean are indeed a sunken part of a continent, but this continent is not Eurasia but North America. So now the property must be duly registered. The United States fully supports this view. However, the Danish Kingdom intervened in the dispute. Academics of Her Majesty Margrethe II of Denmark are trying to prove that this refrigerator filled with hydrocarbons is a giant spur of the Danish autonomous region of Greenland.

Fifty thousand people live on the Earth’s largest island (2,2 million sq. km, 80% of which are still covered with ice). The opportunity to gain control over the richest subsoil immediately influenced the political climate: the majority of islanders voted for supporters of national independence in the last elections for the local parliament. The people are not concerned with the lack of infrastructure and financial base for the extraction of fossil resources. Greenlanders are counting on rich investors that would help them to become independent of the Danish treasury. For example, neighboring Icelanders are independent, self-sufficient and at the top of the ratings for the quality of life.

By the way, the Chinese embassy is the largest diplomatic mission in Reykjavik. Beijing became interested in the island republic as a transport base for the future “polar silk road”. In the Arctic, ship caravans have an almost 7,000 km shorter distance to cover travelling from the Middle Kingdom to the center of Europe if they take the northern route than if they sail through the Suez Canal. Iceland became the first European country to conclude a free trade agreement with China. The next step is a strategic partnership in the development of oil fields. The agreement is to be signed with China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Now it is time for Iceland to be more actively involved in asserting its rights to a piece of the Arctic shelf.

China has not officially applied for any unclaimed space in the Arctic yet. Although, if we recall that a quarter of a million years ago the North Pole was the edge of the ancient continent of Arctida. A rather big part of it is now China. So, why not? Nevertheless, China took a different path. On the one hand, on behalf of all interested countries, China officially asked the Arctic states to take into account, when establishing new borders of the continental shelves, the availability of international waters, which, as is known, are a common heritage. On the other hand, the Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo tried to buy 30,000 hectares of the Icelandic coast for the construction of an elite ecological resort. The deal never took place as Icelanders had no time for the project’s “tourism” purpose. Similar activities took place on Svalbard where privately owned real estate three times the size of Hong Kong Island (217 sq. km) was put on the market. Huang Nubo made a very good offer to the owner, but the Norwegian government bought the land explaining its decision by the strategic interests of the kingdom. China is continuing its attempts to take out a long-term lease or buy a part of the coastal areas in the Arctic not only in Iceland and Norway, but also in Canada, Denmark, and Russia.

A Hot Spot in the Land of Ice

In the 21st century, China has firmly seized the world’s leadership position in terms of investment in the Arctic. Today, their public and private capital is the engine of many of the largest northern projects. They range from resource extraction and logistics to research projects and cultural programs. Operating all year round in Svalbard, the Yellow River station is a branch of the National Polar Research Institute, headquartered in Shanghai. It is known that in addition to geophysical, meteorological, and biological research, its staff is engaged in studying the occurrence, mining and transportation of minerals, as well as in creating efficiency indicators for the development of the Far North. In the near future, Chinese polar explorers are planning to significantly expand their scientific programs. In July 2019, the People's Republic of China commissioned its icebreaker Snow Dragon 2. The vessel has modern equipment for oceanographic surveys, monitoring of ice cover, and the study of atmospheric and ecological conditions, the seabed, and biological resources.

To understand the causes of territorial disputes in the Arctic, we must refer to a brief history of international agreements governing the legal regime in the region. In 1924, the United States presented a sector theory, which proposed that the North Pole point be recognized as a border for all interested states. The basis for such a proposal was the experience of the 1825 bilateral treaties between the Russian Empire and Great Britain on the division of polar possessions along sector (meridian) lines. The same approach was applied in the 1867 treaty concerning the cession of Alaska by Russia to the United States of America. In 1925, Canada was the first nation to develop and ratify a law enshrining its right to a sector from the North Pole to the coastline. The following year, the USSR followed Canada’s example, declaring the entire territory from the “point” to the mainland its own. Denmark, the United States and Norway did not adopt special laws, but enshrined the rights in the acts on fishing and economic zones. So, by the end of the 1920s, the Arctic was actually divided into five parts. However, the areas of the nations’ jurisdictions were agreed neither with the world community nor with each other.

The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea limited the jurisdiction of maritime powers to not more than 200 miles. The rest of the waters, the bottom and the subsoil have gained international status. According to Article 76, no country has the right to establish control over them. But the USA did not sign the Convention, thereby creating unequal conditions for the execution of the most important points of the document. Whatever the case, the sectoral division of the Arctic has lost its force, while global warming made the prospects for the availability of vast resources in the Polar Region a bone of contention for states and private corporations causing bitter rivalry between them.

Historically, the geographical hosts of the Arctic, of course, as much as they could, have tried to oppose expansion and strengthen control over of visitors. Thus, the Northwest Passage is considered international, but now all foreign ships, sailing closer than 200 miles from the coast, are obliged to notify the Canadian border guards of their presence. New rules for the passage of the North Sea for foreign warships have been established by the Russians. Moscow requires that it be informed about an intention to follow this route 45 days in advance. In addition, without a Russian pilot on board, sailing is prohibited there. Violators are subject to arrest. In the case of resistance, the trespasser may be destroyed.

Under the circumstances, the prospects of turning the North Pole into a hot spot seem quite large. Experts from the Planetary Development Institute propose declaring a ten-year moratorium on all territorial changes in the region, with a view to adopting amendments to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, legally defining the special status of the Arctic Ocean. To strengthen the international security of the Arctic, it is necessary to prepare a multilateral treaty to prevent an outbreak of war in the region. It is also necessary to create an effective system of economic regulators for subsoil users, based on the principles of planetary rent. (see link to the book). Collected funding will be used to finance Arctic Council programs.