Resources from the edge

Rush for Arctic's resources provokes territorial tussles

Terry Macalister, | Wednesday 6 July 2011 12.30 BST

US, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway are becoming embroiled in disputes over boundaries on land and at sea

Nato and Arctic : US submarine rests on the Arctic Ocean
The submarine USS Annapolis reaches the frozen Arctic Ocean surface after breaking through three feet of ice.
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Two nations on opposite sides of the Nato military alliance divide - Russia and Norway - have signed a deal over who owns what in the Barents Sea. But there are plenty of other territorial tussles going on - some between good friends.

The United States and Canada still disagree on the setting of the boundaries in the Beaufort Sea - an area of intense interest to oil drillers.

Similarly, Canada has yet to resolve a dispute with Denmark over the ownership of Hans Island and where the control line should be drawn in the strait between Greenland (whose sovereignty remains with Denmark) and Ellesmere Island.

But of even greater significance in a world of melting ice floes is control of the North West Passage. Canada insists that it has sovereignty over the sea route and therefore must be asked about usage. The US sees it as a potential area of open water which gives it automatic right of passage for its battleships.

Canadians were incensed when Americans drove the reinforced oil tanker Manhattan through the passage in 1969, followed by the icebreaker Polar Sea in 1985, both without asking for Canadian permission.

The Svalbard archipelago, north-west of Norway, is already covered by an international treaty signed in 1920. But that does still not stop friends like Britain and Norway having disagreements over the way the treaty has been interpreted.

Norway has been given sovereignty and responsibility for administering the fishing rights and safeguarding the environment.

But it is also meant to give other signatories to the treaty - Russia, the US, China and the UK - equal rights to exploit Svalbard's natural resources four miles onto the continental shelf. The problem is that Norway does not regard the archipelago as having its own shelf, leaving scope for conflict. A major oil discovery off Svalbard would undoubtedly trigger a row.

Meanwhile the US and Russia still have a disagreement over the exact maritime border from the Bering Sea into the Arctic Ocean. A deal was signed with the then-USSR, but Russia has refused to ratify it.

All Arctic nations still have a major disagreement over who owns bits of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, most particularly the 1,800km Lomonosov ridge. Claims are being submitted under the Law of the Sea Convention.

Back to "Conflicts and geopolitical issues in the Arctic"


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