Forget Santa Claus’s ethnicity — what’s his nationality? Canada’s recent announcement that it may try to extend its territory to include the North Pole has led to a debate over who owns this Arctic area, about 1.3 times the size of the United States. Let’s consider some of the biggest misconceptions about the North Pole and how its landscape is changing.
1. The North Pole is just like the South Pole.
Many often look at pictures of the North Pole and wonder where the penguins are. Did the polar bears eat them?
Of course, both poles are extreme environments with exceedingly cold temperatures during the winter months, and both have weeks-long periods of complete darkness or perpetual daylight. In addition to the fact that polar bears live in the North Pole region and penguins in the South, the two areas are very different in their politics and people. The South Pole is on a continent with no indigenous population, while the North Pole is in an ocean almost completely surrounded by coastal states — Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland) and the United States (via Alaska) — with inhabitants who have lived in the region for a long time.
The rules, laws and practices defining the areas are poles apart. For example, the South Pole is governed by a treaty outlining what can be done there (mainly scientific research) and what cannot (resource development and military functions). Activity at the North Pole follows maritime treaties and international law. In other words, anything that can be done in any other ocean can take place at the North Pole. The South Pole cannot be claimed by any one state. But almost all of the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, including the region surrounding the North Pole, can be.
2. Canada, Russia and Denmark are each attempting a North Pole land grab.
Recent news reports suggest that the governments of Canada and Russia are vying for control of the region, as when much of Africa was divided up by colonial powers. But Canada’s and Russia’s efforts to determine their rights over the North Pole’s soil and subsurface are part of a well-established international process. Under the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), both states have the right to resources such as oil, gas, minerals and anything else that exists on the bottom of the ocean more than 200 nautical miles off their coasts.
States have the right to determine if they have an extended continental shelf, which is a natural extension of the underwater landmass. They must conduct thorough measurements (no easy task in the Arctic) and then give their findings to a body established by UNCLOS to check their science. This U.N. body determines only if the science submitted is correct. Then it is up to the states involved to resolve any overlaps. So far, Russia, Canada and Denmark are proceeding as the rules prescribe, and there is no reason to expect conflict.
3. There is no international law governing the North Pole.
The waters at and surrounding the North Pole are governed by the same international laws that apply to all other oceans. And as the ice there begins to melt, the water above the seabed will remain international waters. (We’ve lost about 20,000 square miles of ice per year since 1981.)
If, as the sea warms, new stocks of fish and marine mammals move to the waters in and around the North Pole, then international fishing fleets will have the right to pursue them. In general, the collapse of world fishing stocks is blamed on the weakness of existing rules, including the enforcement of fishing limits and faulty reporting of fishing stocks. Thus, those problems could be exported to the waters of the North Pole and become major international challenges.
4. There is no military presence at the North Pole.
While there is no real threat of conflict over the division of the seabed, there still is military activity in the region. And as the ice melts and the Arctic Ocean becomes similar to the other oceans, day-to-day naval activities for the protection of maritime trade will begin to occur there.
There are two trends increasing the strategic importance of the waters around the North Pole. First, Russia has been building improved submarines to carry nuclear missiles. The key bases for these submarines and protective forces are in and around Murmansk, facing directly toward the North Pole. This has already caused the U.S. Navy to ensure that its attack submarines are capable of operating in Arctic waters. So we could see some Cold War habits coming back into play when two navys once again begin to play games of cat and mouse under the ice.
Second, anytime the United States feels threatened by North Korea, it strengthens its anti-ballistic missile systems — and the primary land-based interceptor site is at Fort Greely, Alaska. The United States is in the process of adding more interceptors because of recent actions by North Korea. The interceptors are in the Arctic not because of any U.S. concern about a missile strike from its Arctic neighbors. But their location has not gone unnoticed by Russian authorities, who think U.S. efforts may be directed against them — not rogue states or nonstate actors.
The presence of U.S. and Russian military forces in the Arctic means that in times of conflict and stress elsewhere, the Arctic could easily become involved.
5. The only thing changing at the North Pole is the climate.
There is no doubt that the most dramatic changes in the region are related to the climate. (Many experts believe that the permanent ice cover will be gone as early as 2020.) But at the same time the North Pole is physically changing, exploration of the area is increasing. Improvements in marine technology — led by non-Arctic states such as South Korea — are allowing different types of vessels to enter the region, even in the presence of ice. The ongoing discovery of untapped oil and gas fields in the area is also driving the development of better technologies. In short, the North Pole region is in a state of massive transformation.
Canada’s and Russia’s efforts to determine the outer boundaries of the continental shelf are among many transformations occurring at the North Pole. While there are some promising signs of international cooperation, problems with fishing and increased submarine activities could soon emerge. The leaders of the Arctic states must ensure that the negative does not override the positive. We owe Santa no less.
Rob Huebert is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.