Forgot Your Password?
Advanced Search
Arctic ownership claims
April 21, 2012 

1. Executive Summary

Rising global temperatures and melting Arctic ice are changing the geopolitical reality in the far north. In the span of a decade, the Arctic has gone from being considered a ‘global common’ to a hotlyCanadian arctic contested economic goldmine.

2. Significance of the Arctic

The geopolitical relevance of the Arctic is overwhelmingly economic in nature. Under the melting ice lies an abundance of natural resources, mainly in the form of energy reserves. According to estimates, the region is home to around 22% of the earth’s remaining supplies of oil and gas [1]. While the current cost of tapping these reserves is high, their ownership is particularly appealing to Arctic-bordering states given the widely held assumption that energy prices will once again spike in the future. Arctic reserves can also be exploited without risking the political violence and instability that can arise in the Middle East and Africa.  

According to the U.S Geological Survey assessment of energy resources in the Arctic, the largest potential oil reserves in the region are: The Arctic Alaska Basin off the northern coast of Alaska, the Amerasia Basin north of Canada, and the East and West Greenland Rift Basins, off the coasts of Greenland. The estimated supplies in these fields are 29, 9.7, 8, and 7 billion barrels of oil respectively [2].

3. The Players

According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, every maritime state’s continental shelf extends 200 nautical miles; within this area is a state’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, states can extend their jurisdiction up to a maximum of 350 nautical miles by submitting geological evidence to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) within 10 years of ratifying the Law of the Sea [3]. The primary players involved in this process are Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway, all of whom have Arctic coastline. America is also a stakeholder, but one that is acting outside the UN framework.


In 2001, Moscow submitted a claim to the 1240 mile underwater Lomonosov Ridge to the UN CLCS, arguing that the ridge is an extension of the Siberian landmass [5].  If the Commission were to recognize the ridge as Russian territory, Russia would extend its EEZ nearly all the way to the North Pole.  In an effort to symbolically bolster their claim, a Russian science expedition used a mini-sub to plant a flag in the Arctic seabed under the North Pole in 2007.

More recently, a report released by the Russian National Security Council reveals that Moscow expects the Arctic to become its’ primary resource base by 2020.  The report also goes on to outline plans for the formation of a specialized military force responsible for protecting Russian interests in the Arctic [4].

The United States

American interests in the region include: Limiting Russian economic and military expansion into the area, pressing for the Northwest Passage to be classified as international waters, and securing a favorable agreement with Canada on the Alaska-Yukon sea border, location of the lucrative Arctic Alaska basin. American efforts to legally extend claims to the Arctic continental shelf are complicated by the fact that America has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and is thus excluded from the legal process that other Arctic states are engaged in.  


Canadian geography allows for a potentially large claim on the Arctic shelf, one that could even argue that the Lomonosov Ridge is an underwater extension of Ellesmere Island [3]. The Canadian claim to the UN CLCS is most likely to conflict with those of Russia and Denmark.  

Arctic sovereignty is an increasingly visible issue on the Canadian political radar.  As such, the Canadian government has announced several steps aimed at strengthening the Canadian claim. These steps include: Plans to purchase 8 new armed ice-breaking patrol ships, conducting high-profile military exercises and leadership visits to the Arctic, as well as announcing plans to build a military base on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island [6, 7, 8].  Canadian scientists are also working to strengthen the Canadian claim, accumulating geological data and mapping the Arctic floor for use in Canada’s eventual submission to the UN CLCS. Canada must submit all evidence to the UN CLCS by 2013.

Canadian interests in the Arctic are not restricted to resource rights. Melting ice in the Northwest Passage has the potential to open new international trade routes that shorten the shipping distance from Europe to Asia by about 2,150 nautical miles [12]. These routes would pass between the islands of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.  The conflict arises from whether these waters should be classified as international waters, a stance adopted by the United States and Russia, or as internal Canadian waters [8]. 


Denmark, like Russia, is laying claim to the North Pole itself via the Lomonosov Ridge [9]. Copenhagen argues that the ridge is an extension of the Greenland landmass. Denmark is also advancing claims to certain islands in the Arctic Archipelago west of Greenland that are also claimed by Canada. In 2005, Denmark tried to strengthen their claim and test Canadian resolve by occupying Hans Island, a small patch of contested land that lies between Ellesmere Island and the Northwestern coast of Greenland [9].


The Norwegian claim is dominated by a dispute with Russia over how to demarcate their mutual border in the Barents Sea, home to an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil. Oslo is engaging in bi-lateral negotiations with Russia as well as submitting data to the UN CLCS to extend their continental shelf to about 600 kilometers south of the North Pole [10, 11]

The Arctic Council 

The Arctic Council has emerged as the primary institution for handling disputes between Arctic countries while keeping out non-Arctic states that ‘don’t belong.’ Its members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Some agreements that have thus far been reached by the council include: international search and rescue cooperation procedures; the establishment of a permanent secretariat in Norway; and a streamlined process for granting non-Arctic states a permanent observer status in the council (an attempt to appease the EU and China without legitimizing their interests in the region). Interestingly, a primary criterion for becoming a permanent observer is to accept Arctic countries sovereignty over their corresponding part of the Arctic. Or in other words, for a seat at the negotiating table a non-Arctic country must give up all pretentions that the region is a ‘global common.’


Although the country shares no border with the Arctic, the Chinese government has actively sought to establish a place for itself at the Arctic ownership negotiating table. For the most part, it has accomplished this by extending a financial lifeline to Iceland; a country that has a very real stake in Arctic negotiations. While it goes without saying that Iceland is hesitant to cede its own strategic space in the Arctic to a distant government in East Asia, its negotiating position has been severely damaged in the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis.

In 2011, Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo purchased 116 square miles of land in northern Iceland with the stated goal of developing the land for tourism. The deal was eventually axed by the government in Reykjavik over suspicions that the land would eventually be converted into an Arctic port to further Chinese shipping interests. The ruling has since been appealed and the deal is once more being considered by the Icelandic government, though it may be converted into a lease agreement.

China has extended its Arctic lobbying to include Canada, another Arctic state. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was reportedly urged to support China’s bid for observer status on the Arctic Council during a 2012 visit to China. Beijing has also made similar overtures towards Denmark, offering access to China’s booming economy in exchange for Danish support for China’s permanent observer bid. 


4. Cold War or Co-operation?

Russian plans to establish an Arctic military force have been met with consternation from the other Arctic states, all of whom are members of NATO. In January 2009, NATO held a conference in Iceland to discuss the security challenges that a thawed Arctic could bring.

NATO, still searching for a post-Cold War identity, may jump on the opportunity to stand up to Russia on a new Arctic frontier, as it offers a familiar resonance from the alliance’s Cold War past, one that could temporarily delay any true soul-searching over NATOs raison d’être in a post-Cold War world.

Of course, it is very likely that this will not be necessary. Most Arctic states have either yet to submit their claim to the UN CLCS, or are waiting on a definitive ruling. Given that the UN CLCS is generally regarded as legitimate and impartial by all parties involved in the process, it seems unlikely that an Arctic state would openly contradict the ruling of an international regime that they have voluntarily acquiesced to.

Military Exercises 

The universal acceptance of arbitrating institutions such as the Arctic Council and the United Nations makes open conflict over Arctic ownership issues unlikely, but this hasn’t stopped the players from improving their military options.

Canada and Denmark recently held joint exercises in the Arctic called ‘Arctic Training 2012.’ The exercises, mainly restricted to special forces, were the direct result of an agreement signed in 2010 that pledged to deepen security links between the two countries on all Arctic issues. This agreement also allowed high-level Danish observers to witness Canada’s ‘Operation Nanook’ exercises at Resolute Bay in 2011.

In March 2012, Norway and its NATO allies completed one of the largest Arctic maneuvers ever, incorporating over 16,300 troops from 14 different counties. The goal was to improve operations in a wide range of fields, including high-intensity warfare and terrorism threats.

In an effort to maintain its own strategic balancing act, Norway is also planning to conduct Arctic exercises with the Russian Navy in May 2012. These exercises will simulate anti-submarine warfare, anti-piracy operations, and search and rescue missions. 

5. Endnotes

[1] Borgerson, S & Antrim, C. ‘An Arctic Circle of Friends.’ The New York Times. March 28, 2009.

[2] Bird, K & Charpentier, R. ‘Circum-Arctic resource appraisal: Estimates of undiscovered oil and gas north of the Arctic Circle.’ U.S Geological Survey.

[3] Singh, P. ‘Whos Arctic is it anyways?’ IDSA Strategic Comments. 01/01/08

[4] ‘Russia outlines Arctic force plan.’ BBC Worlds News Online. 03/27/2009.

[5] Reynolds, P. ‘Russia ahead in Arctic gold rush.’ BBC World News Online. 08/01/2007.

[6] ‘Ottawa buying up eight Arctic patrol ships.’ CBC News Online. 07/09/2007. (arctic patrol ships)

[7]’Canadian forces carry out Arctic training exercises’. CTV News Online. 08/25/2008.
[8] ‘Battle for Arctic heats up.’ CBC News Online. 02/27/2009.

[9] Demille, D. ‘Denmark goes Viking in Canada’s Arctic islands – strategic resources of the high Arctic entice the Danes.’ Canadian American Strategic Review.  March 2005.

[10] ‘Maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic region.’ Durham University International Boundaries Research Unit. August 2008.

[11] Pritchard, L.W. ‘The Norwegian Barents Sea: Historical overview and future perspectives.’ IHS. December 2006.

[12] Pilkington, E. ‘Canada flexes its muscles in scramble for the Arctic.’ The Guardian. 07/11/2007.


Tags:  Energy Security - Antarctica & the Arctic - United States - Russian Federation - Norway - Denmark - Canada

Post your comment

Submission Guidelines






Social Media





Relevant Articles