Will the Arctic be conquered?

Published: Sunday 30 September 2007

the Arctic was a fashionable destination this summer. A team of Russian researchers planted their country's flag there in August. The Canadians went there, so did the Danes, even India sent an expedition recently. The Indians, though, do not claim any slice of the Arctic; not so far, at least. But Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the us do, and there is every chance that imperialist designs over the North Pole have been rekindled.

The issue of who owns the Arctic has long been regarded as academic since the region is locked in year-round impenetrable ice. But with global warming thinning the ice-caps, the matter has vaulted to prominence. What seems like an ungainly dash to claim a slice of the North Pole has underlying reasons. The steady shrinkage of polar ice-caps is making hitherto inaccessible oil deposits much easier to get at. The steep rise in energy commodity prices has changed the economics of difficult searches for oil, gas and minerals. There is also the question of control over some formerly ice-bound shipping lanes.

In 2001, Russia submitted documents to the un Convention on the Law of Sea claiming that the Losmonov Ridge, in the Arctic Ocean, is actually an extension of the Siberian continental shelf and should therefore be treated as Russian territory. The case was rejected. Its recent expedition is believed to have been aimed at getting data to further the old case. The Danes, however, also claim the ridge since it is connected to Greenland--which is under Danish sovereignty. Canada has announced a slew of measures to safeguard its Arctic claims.

This cacophony of claims should keep international negotiators busy for decades. But any country that wants to make a claim under the un Convention of the Law of the Sea must do so within a decade of ratifying it. Russia's deadline is 2009. Denmark must set out its case by 2010 and Canada by 2013. The us has not ratified the convention, apprehending loss of sovereignty. But the Bush administration wants to sign up to the convention and start making the us case.

Despite the appearance of a free-for-all today, governments and scientists still co-operate over the Arctic. The Canadians help the Danish, and the Russian expedition had a Swede and an Australian. The fact is that no nation can conquer the Arctic on its own. But is that only for the time being?

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