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Territorial claims in the Arctic: Map


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Under international law, no country currently owns the North Polemarker or the region of the Arctic Oceanmarker surrounding it. The five surrounding Arctic states, Russiamarker, the United Statesmarker (via Alaskamarker), Canadamarker, Norwaymarker and Denmarkmarker (via Greenlandmarker), are limited to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) adjacent to their coasts.

Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country has a ten year period to make claims to an extended continental shelf which, if approved, gives it exclusive rights to resources on or below the seabed. Due to this, Norway (ratified the convention in 1996), Russia (ratified in 1997), Canada (ratified in 2003) and Denmark (ratified in 2004) launched projects to base claims that they have exclusive right to certain portions of the Arctic seabed. The United States has signed, but not yet ratified this treaty, although George W. Bush asked the United States Senate to ratify it on May 15, 2007 and on October 31, 2007, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to send the ratification vote to the full US Senate.

The status of certain portions of the Arctic sea region are in dispute for various reasons. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States all regard parts of the Arctic seas as "national waters" (territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles) or "internal waters". Further, all countries officially regard all waters beyond the 12-mile territorial sea limit as international waters. There also are disputes regarding rights to passage along "international seaways" (see Northwest Passage).

North Pole and the Arctic Ocean

National Sectors: 1925–2005

In 1925, based upon the Sector Principle, Canada became the first country to extend its boundaries northward to the North Pole, at least on paper, between 60°W and 141°W longitude, a claim that is not universally recognized (there are in fact nautical miles of ocean between the Pole and Canada's northernmost land point). In 1926 Russia fixed its claim in Soviet law (32°04'35"E to 168°49'30"W). Norway (5°E to 35°E) made similar sector claims — as did the United States (170°W to 141°W), but that sector contained only a few islands so the claim was not pressed. Denmark's sovereignty over all of Greenland was recognized by the United States in 1916 and by an international court in 1933. Denmark could also conceivably claim an Arctic sector (60°W to 10°W).

In the context of the Cold War, Canada sent Inuit families to the far north in the High Arctic relocation, partly to establish territoriality.

In addition, Canada claims the water within the Canadian Arctic Archipelagomarker as its own internal waters. The United States is one of the countries which does not recognize Canada's, or any other countries', Arctic water claims, and has allegedly sent nuclear submarines under the ice near Canadian islands without requesting permission.

On April 15, 1926, the Presidium of the Supreme Sovietmarker of the USSRmarker declared the territory between two lines (35°E and 170°W) drawn from Murmanskmarker to the North Pole and from the Chukchi Peninsulamarker to the North Pole to be Soviet territory.

Otherwise, until 1999 the North Pole and the major part of the Arctic Ocean had been generally considered international territory. However, due to Arctic shrinkage the polar ice has begun to recede at a rate higher than expected due to global warming . Several countries have made moves to claim or to reinforce pre-existing claims to the waters or seabed at the Pole.

Extended Continental Shelf Claims: 2006–present

  • Denmark
The Danish autonomous province of Greenland has the nearest coastline to the North Pole, and Denmark argues that the Lomonosov Ridge is in fact an extension of Greenland. Danish project included LORITA-1 expedition in April-May 2006 and will include tectonic research during LOMROG expedition, included into the 2007-2008 International Polar Year program. This expedition will be held in August-September 2007. It will consist of the Swedishmarker icebreaker Oden and Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 let Pobedy. The latter will lead the expedition through icefields to the place of research.

  • Norway
On November 27, 2006, Norway also made an official submission into the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (article 76, paragraph 8). There are provided arguments to extend the Norwegian seabed claim beyond the EEZ in three areas of the northeastern Atlanticmarker and the Arctic: the "Loop Hole" in the Barents Seamarker, the Western Nansen Basin in the Arctic Ocean, and the "Banana Hole" in the Norwegian Seamarker. The submission also states that an additional submission for continental shelf limits in other areas may be posted later.

  • Russia
Russia is claiming a large extended continental shelf as far as the North Pole based on the Lomonosov Ridge within their Arctic sector. Moscowmarker believes the eastern Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Siberianmarker continental shelf. The Russian claim does not cross the Russia-US Arctic sector demarcation line, nor does it extend into the Arctic sector of any other Arctic coastal state.

On December 20, 2001, Russia made an official submission into the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (article 76, paragraph 8). In the document it is proposed to establish the outer limits of the continental shelf of Russia beyond the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, but within the Russian Arctic sector. The territory claimed by Russia in the submission is a large portion of the Arctic, extending to the geographic North Pole. One of the arguments was a statement that Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain ridge passing near the Pole, and Mendeleev Ridge are extensions of the Eurasian continent. In 2002 the UN Commission neither rejected nor accepted the Russian proposal, recommending additional research.

On August 2, 2007, a Russian expedition called Arktika 2007, composed of six explorers led by Artur Chilingarov, employing MIR submersibles, for the first time in history descended to the seabed below the North Pole. Here they planted the flag of Russia and took water and soil samples for analysis, continuing a mission to provide additional evidence related to the Russian claim of the mineral riches of the Arctic. This was part of the ongoing 2007 Russian North Pole expedition within the program of the 2007–2008 International Polar Year.

The expedition aims to establish that the eastern section of seabed passing close to the pole, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is in fact an extension of Russia's landmass. The expedition came as several countries are trying to extend their rights over sections of the Arctic Ocean floor. Both Norway and Denmark are carrying out surveys to this end. Vladimir Putin made a speech on a nuclear icebreaker earlier this year, urging greater efforts to secure Russia's "strategic, economic, scientific and defence interests" in the Arctic.

In mid-September 2007, Russia's Natural Resources Ministry issued a statement:

  • United States
In August 2007, an American Coast Guard icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, headed to the Arctic Ocean to map the sea floor off Alaska. Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshiremarker, stated the trip had been planned for months, having nothing to do with the Russians planting their flag. The purpose of the mapping work aboard the Healy is to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska.

  • Canada
In response to the Russian Arktika 2007 expedition, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister said the following:

In response to MacKay's comments, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated:

On September 25, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, "President Putin assured me that he meant no offense, ... nor any intention to violate any international understanding or any Canadian sovereignty in any way."Prime Minister Harper has also promised to defend Canada's claimed sovereignty by building and operating up to eight Arctic patrol ships, a new army training centre in Resolute Baymarker, and the refurbishing of an existing deepwater port at a former mining site in Nanisivikmarker.


It was stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on March 25, 2007, that riches are awaiting the shipping industry due to Arctic climate change. This economic sector could be transformed similar to the way the Middle East was by the Suez Canalmarker in the 19th century. There will be a race among nations for oil, fish, diamonds and shipping routes, accelerated by the impact of global warming.

The potential value of the North Pole and the surrounding area resides not so much in shipping itself but in the possibility that lucrative petroleum and natural gas reserves exist below the sea floor. Such reserves are known to exist under the Beaufort Seamarker. On September 14, 2007 the European Space Agencymarker reported ice loss had opened up the Northwest Passage "for the first time since records began in 1978", and the extreme loss in 2007 rendered the passage "fully navigable". Further exploration for petroleum reserves elsewhere in the Arctic may now become more feasible, and the passage may become a regular channel of international shipping and commerce if Canada is not able to enforce its claim to it.

Foreign Ministers and other officials representing Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States met in Ilulissat, Greenlandmarker in May 2008, at the Arctic Ocean Conference and announced the Ilulissat Declaration. Among other things the declaration stated that any demarcation issues in the Arctic should be resolved on a bilateral basis between contesting parties.

Hans Island

Hans Island is situated in the Nares Straitmarker, a waterway that runs between Ellesmere Islandmarker (the most northerly part of Nunavutmarker, Canada) and Greenland.

In 1973, Canada and Denmark negotiated the geographic coordinates of the continental shelf, and settled on a delimitation treaty which was ratified by the United Nations on December 17, 1973, and in force since March 13, 1974. The treaty lists 127 points (latitude and longitude) from Davis Straitmarker to the end of Robeson Channelmarker, where Nares Strait runs into Lincoln Seamarker, to draw geodesic lines between, to form the border. The treaty does not, however, draw a line from point 122 (80° 49' 2 - 66° 29' 0) to point 123 (80° 49' 8 - 66° 26' 3), a distance of . Hans Island is situated in the centre of this area.

Danish flag had been planted on Hans Island in 1984, 1988, 1995 and 2003. These were formally protested by the Canadian government, and followed with former Canadian defence minister Bill Graham making an unannounced stop on Hans Island during a trip to the Arctic in July 2005. This launched yet another diplomatic quarrel between the governments, and a truce called that September.

Canada had claimed Hans Island was clearly in their territory, as topographic maps originally used in 1967 to determine the island's co-ordinates clearly showed the entire island on Canada's side of the delimitation line. However, federal officials reviewed the latest satellite imagery in July 2007, and conceded the line went roughly through the middle of the island. This still presently leaves ownership of the island disputed, with claims over fishing grounds and future access to the Northwest Passage possibly at stake as well.

Beaufort Sea

The cross-hatched wedge-shaped region in the east is claimed by both Canada and the USA.

There is an ongoing dispute involving a wedge-shaped slice on the International Boundary in the Beaufort Seamarker, between the Canadian Territory of Yukonmarker and the American state of Alaska.

The Canadian position is that the maritime boundary should follow the land boundary. The American position is that the maritime boundary should extend along a path equidistant from the coasts of the two nations. The disputed area may hold significant hydrocarbon reserves. The US has already leased eight plots of terrain below the water to search for and possibly exploit oil reserves that may exist there. Canada has protested diplomatically in response.

No settlement has been reached to date, because the US has signed but has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If the treaty is ratified, the issue would likely be settled at a tribunal.

On August 20, 2009 United States Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke announced a moratorium on fishing the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, including the disputed waters.

Randy Boswell, of wrote that the disputed area covered a section of the Beaufort Sea (smaller than Israelmarker, larger than El Salvadormarker).He wrote that Canada had filed a "diplomatic note" with the USA in April when the USA first announced plans for the moratorium.

Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage routes.

The legal status of a section of the Northwest Passage is disputed: Canada considers it to be part of its internal waters according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States and most maritime nations, consider them to be an international strait, which means that foreign vessels have right of "transit passage". In such a regime, Canada would have the right to enact fishing and environmental regulation, and fiscal and smuggling laws, as well as laws intended for the safety of shipping, but not the right to close the passage. In addition, the environmental regulations allowed under the UNCLOS are not as robust as those allowed if the Northwest Passage is part of Canada's internal waters.

See also


  3. President's Statement on Advancing U.S. Interests in the World's Oceans
  4. T. E. M. McKitterick, "The Validity of Territorial and Other Claims in Polar Regions," Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, 3rd Ser., Vol. 21, No. 1. (1939), pp. 89-97.[1]
  5. Sobranie Zakonov SSSR, 1926 (Russian)
  6. George Ginsburgs, The Soviet Union and International Cooperation in Legal Matters, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988, ISBN 0792330943, available at Google Print
  7. LORITA-1 (Lomonosov Ridge Test of Appurtenance)
  8. LOMROG - Lomonosov Ridge off Greenland
  9. LOMROG 2007 cruise with the Swedish icebreaker Oden north of Greenland
  10. Outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines: Submissions to the Commission: Submission by Norway CLCS. United Nations
  11. Outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines: Submissions to the Commission: Submission by the Russian Federation CLCS. United Nations
  12. Area of the continental shelf of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Ocean beyond 200-nautical-mile zone - borders of the zone are marked in red, territory claimed by Russia is shaded
  13. The Battle for the Next Energy Frontier: The Russian Polar Expedition and the Future of Arctic Hydrocarbons, by Shamil Midkhatovich Yenikeyeff and Timothy Fenton Krysiek, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, August 2007
  15. A Conversation with Stephen Harper [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service] - Council on Foreign Relations
  16. Harper announces northern deep-sea port, training site
  17. The Big Melt, The New York Times, October 2005
  18. Transnational Issues CIA World Fact Book
  19. Sea Changes
  21. Northwest Passage gets political name change - Ottawa Citizen
  22. Climate Change and Canadian Sovereignty in the Northwest Passage
  23. The Northwest Passage Thawed
  25. The Northwest Passage and Climate Change from the Library of Parliament - Canadian Arctic Sovereignty

Further reading

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