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When The North Pole Melts, Who Gets To Claim It?

The Arctic and the North Pole, once considered a frozen wasteland, are now the center of heated competition among nations.

As the ice melts in the Arctic and large deposits of oil and gas have been estimated in the region, nations are scrambling to stake their territorial claims.

The United States Geological Survey has stated that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered natural gas can be found in the Arctic.

Within a few decades, the entire region could be free of ice during summer, opening up new shipping routes such as the Northwest Passage, according to the Guardian.

Understandably, nations are eager to exploit these opportunities.

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How the area can be claimed

Under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLS), every nation has exclusive right to all sea-based natural resources within 200 nautical miles of their borders (1 nautical mile = 1.15 miles).

However, if the continental shelf continues below water, territory can be claimed out to 350 nautical miles, or 100 nautical miles from a depth of 8,200 ft isobath.

Isobath depth is an imaginary line that connects all points that have the same depth, the UNCLS states. The chart below from the U.S. National Ocean Service shows these constraint lines:

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Image courtesy of the U.S. National Ocean Service.

Who’s making the North Pole claims?

Currently, six nations are hoping to claim economic privileges in the Arctic: Russia, Canada, United States, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

All of these nations have signed the UNCLOS treaty except for the U.S, because the Senate rejected it as an encroachment on U.S. sovereignty.

Researchers at The International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University in the U.K. have created a chart showing the potential reach of these claims and where conflict may arise.north pole


Image courtesy of Durham University. Blue = USA, Green = Russia, Orange = Norway, Purple = Iceland, Pink = Denmark, and Yellow = Canada.

The dark colors represent territory that countries already have a claim to under existing law.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”dnmyFSo3sn50hkKXqTM3CeCVr4cOiudi”]

Light colors means territories currently claimed beyond currently accepted territory.

Stripes means potential territory if a connection to the country’s land mass can be proven. Canada has recently laid claim to much of this territory – including the North Pole.

Arctic Icebreaker

What could happen?

In 2007, Russia sent a submarine under the North Pole, at a depth of 14,000 feet and planted a Russian flag there, sparking controversy over whether they were claiming it as their territory.

However, they claimed it was an effort to determine whether the Lomonosov Ridge, which crosses the North Pole, was part of their territory.

And so far, any claims will be dependent on bathymetry, or depth-measuring, efforts to determine exactly how far continental shelves stretch. Canada and Denmark have also claimed that the Lomonosov Ridge is part of their territory.

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The current law, UNCLOS, does not have any mechanisms for resolving who owns what in this yet-unclaimed part of the world, according to the Göttingen International Journal of Law. Nations will therefore have to settle their disputes among themselves.

Meanwhile, there are fears that the region will become a flashpoint for conflict – Russia has already boosted its military presence in the region, while Canada has created Arctic military  training facilities.

In 2016 Russia submitted an Arctic Ocean claim to the United Nations Oceans and Law of The Sea division that includes the seabed under the North Pole. If accepted by the UN, the claim would give Russia the rights to valuable mineral and oil and gas deposits on the ocean floor, but would not extend Russian sovereignty to the ocean surface or the ice.

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Russian Pantir-SA air defense system in Arctic paint scheme

The Russian claim is reported to have bathymetric data that may allow Russia to prove that the continental shelf extends their claim area to 350 nautical miles from Russia’s northern shores.

Activists are already warning nations on the potential environmental impacts of resource exploitation in the area, including oil spills, damage to maritime life, and an accelerated release of methane gas.

Even as Arctic ice melts, access to the region can still rely upon icebreakers in the coldest months of the year. Russia can count on their large fleet of icebreakers compared to other countries.  compared to other countries.


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Ole Skaar