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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Battle for the North Pole heating up as the Arctic melts

Bob Knudsen

With Christmas finally over, Santa Claus has returned to his base at the North Pole. But what country is he in when he’s hanging out with his elves and reindeer? That question is a bit trickier than it would seem on its surface.
Under international law, most of the Arctic is considered international waters, meaning that it doesn’t belong to any country in particular. However, the laws do include the allowance for countries to maintain an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles from their coasts. Beyond that, the most recent law passed on the subject was Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1994, to which the United States has never signed. Add to that Putin’s belligerence around the world and apparent desire to reignite the Cold War and climate change allowing increased access to a region that is warming twice as fast as any other and which may have as many as 22 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves, and you have the makings of a serious problem.
Five countries currently maintain claims to parts of the Arctic: Russia, The United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark. Each of these nations have coastal areas that extend into the arctic circle, and continental shelves underneath as well. The Arctic, being essentially the top of a spheroid, does not lend itself well to drawing borders, and the boundaries between all of the countries are disputed except the one between the United States’ Alaska and Russia’s Chukotka. Many of the areas that are within the 200-nm area for one country are also within those of another. Additionally, a large portion of the North Pole region is outside of any country’s EEZ.
Denmark only recently made their claim for the region known, doing so on Dec. 15. Under UNCLOS, claims must be submitted within 10 years of the law taking effect, and, as the law took effect on Dec. 16, 2004, Denmark waited until the last minute. Most of the previous claims have come from Canada and Russia, as they both have the most access and largest coastlines in the region. Russia even went so far as to plant a flag on the seafloor in 2007 to attempt to bolster that claim. They have also engaged in combat exercising in the Arctic, attempting to intimidate other countries into backing off of the prize.
Denmark’s claim overlaps a considerable portion of Russia’s, mostly due to an underwater mountain range known as the Lomonosov Ridge. The ridge extends across much of the Eastern Arctic and runs right past a large portion of Russia. Denmark claims the ridge begins on Greenland’s continental shelf, and is therefore a part of their claim.
The issues over the arctic seem to be heating up rather than cooling down. Hopefully the claims can be settled amicably within the United Nations, but any time Vladimir Putin is involved, those hopes are often mitigated. He’s not above throwing Russia’s weight around in order to conquer other sovereign nations for their resources, and the North Pole is quite a prize.

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