Who Owns the Arctic?

A critical question – as the world faces the possibility of an Arctic Ocean that may soon be ice-free in late summer.

Through her nomination as the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has increased interest in her state and its energy resources. Meanwhile, Russia has become more aggressive in controlling territory with energy resources. Both Russia and the United States are now rushing to claim energy resources that may lie below the Arctic Ocean.

icebreaker
Creative Commons License photo credit: angela7dreams

In producing an update for the Planetarium’s Ice Worlds show, we discovered political and economic changes that follow the loss of Arctic sea ice.  The melting of Arctic Sea ice has opened the Northwest Passage through the Canadian islands, past the coast of northern Alaska and into the northern Pacific Ocean. This course reduces the ocean distance between Europe and Asia by 5,000 nautical miles. An increase in summer shipping through the Arctic is on its way – from cruise ships to oil tankers. Ice cover is lowest in late summer so the passage remains open now for the second summer. It will close again with the cold of Arctic winter. 

Icebergs and Parakeets. Lago Grey, Patagonia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Deger

Melting Arctic ice will soon open up much of the Arctic Ocean to travel and to the mining of oil and gas underneath Arctic waters. Only five bordering countries can claim parts of the Arctic sea floor: Russia, Norway, Denmark (through its ownership of Greenland), Canada, and the United States. (Here is a territorial map of the Arctic.) Historically, a country could claim exclusive economic control over fishing and mining of resources in an area extending 200 nautical miles from its coastline. This boundary leaves the central Arctic Ocean unclaimed.

However, according to the Law of the Sea treaty, countries can extend their claim in areas that are an extension of that country’s undersea continental shelf. The US Geological Survey estimates that 22% of the worlds’ undiscovered resources, including oil and natural gas, lie in the extensive continental shelves of the Arctic. Therefore, the shape of these continental shelves is critical in determining who owns these resources.

Perito Moreno
Creative Commons License photo credit: untipografico

The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the continental shelf that borders Canada and Greenland, over the Pole, to Russia’s continental shelf. All three nations now claim this ridge as an extension of their continental shelves and seek to extend their territory to the North Pole.

In August 2007, two mini-submarines, the Mir 1 and Mir 2, planted a one meter-high Russian flag on the ridge near the North Pole. Descending to 4,300 meters, the mini-subs collected water and sediment samples from the seabed to shore up the Russian claim that the ridge is an integral part of Russia. If recognized, this claim would give Russia control of almost half of the Arctic Ocean seabed. The “Cold Rush” has begun!

To learn more about the Poles of Earth and the other ice worlds of the solar system, visit the newly revised Ice Worlds show, beginning this weekend.

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