Arctic Circle Territorial Conflicts

Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle is one of two polar circles found on Earth, making up the most northerly latitude in the world. The area north of the Arctic Circle is known as the Arctic, which encompasses the Scandinavian Peninsula, North Asia, North America, and Greenland. The Arctic is almost entirely composed of water and is estimated to make up 20% of the world’s freshwater resource. Much of the Arctic’s water is frozen, forming what is known as the Arctic ice caps. These ice caps significantly impact global climate as they reflect sunlight into space, dispelling solar heat. However, the Arctic Ocean’s dark surface beneath these ice caps absorbs 90% of the sun’s heat, having an adverse warming effect on the ocean that dispels globally. Global warming has resulted in the melting of the Arctic’s ice caps to significant degrees that continue to increase annually. The melting of ice caps reveals more of the ocean’s dark surface, leading to increased solar heat absorption.

As more of the Arctic’s ocean is revealed from beneath these ice caps, it has opened resource extraction opportunities in the region. Within the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Arctic states have begun to increasingly vie for territorial control over the area in hopes of exploiting its reserves of oil and natural gas. It is estimated the Arctic holds 13% of the world’s oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas reserves. Access to the region’s resources offers enormous economic opportunities for Arctic states. However, according to international law, the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean cannot be claimed by any sole state.

The Arctic Ocean’s warming has also created vast trading opportunities via the Northern passage. In centuries prior, the Northern Passage was blocked by ice caps, making travel through the route impossible for commercial purposes. However, due to global warming, the Northern Passage has become navigational. The former United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said the Northern Passage could become the “21st century Suez and Panama Canals” and potentially reduce sea travel from Asia and the West by 20 days. As a result, the Arctic holds significant potential to become increasingly contested over in the coming years, with many experts considering it to be the site of the 21st century’s ‘Cold War’ between the Arctic States.

The Arctic is divided between the eight states that have territorial claims within the area. These states are America, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Russia, Iceland, and Finland. Canada was the first Arctic state to claim vast land areas in the region in 1935, followed shortly after by the Soviet Union in 1937. The region’s strategic importance increased during the Cold War due to the potential to base submarine-launched nuclear weapons in the area, resulting in the ratified UNCLOS treaty at the end of the Cold War between the Arctic States. However, as global warming reduced ice caps in the region, the treaty has failed to clarify territorial disputes, increasing tensions between the Arctic states that is only expected to increase as more of the Arctic Ocean is released beneath the ice caps.

The geopolitical environment for the Arctic has been substantially affected by the renewal of great power competition. Although there continues to be significant international cooperation on Arctic issues, the Arctic is increasingly viewed as an arena for geopolitical competition among the United States, Russia, and China.

Key Facts


Territories Under Dispute

4 Million

Arctic Population


Arctic Countries

Arctic States: United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Iceland, and Finland

Countries Outside of the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea: United States

Territories Under Dispute: The Northwest Passage, Hans Island, Beaufort Sea, and the Lomonosov Ridge

Arctic Sea Ice Extent: 12.95 million square kilometers (December 2021)

Arctic Sea Ice Minimum: 3.92 million sq km

Arctic Sea Ice Rate of Change: 13.1% decrease per decade

Arctic Indigenous Communities: the Saami in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia, Nenets, Khanty, Evenk and Chukchi in Russia, Aleut, Yupik and Inuit (Iñupiat) in Alaska, Inuit (Inuvialuit) in Canada and Inuit (Kalaallit) in Greenland

Arctic Ethnic Groups: 40 different ethnic groups populate the Arctic 

The Key Actors

The Situation

Classification: Territorial and Resource Dispute

The Arctic is an internationally autonomous zone on the Northernmost Global pole. The area holds a vast amount of natural resources that have become available for exploitation with climate-change-induced melting of the Arctic ice caps. As such, multiples Arctic states have disputed over rights to the Arctic territories to access these resources. 

Analyst’s suggestions:

  • Coming soon

Similar Humanitarian Crises

  • Amazonian Deforestation
  • Desertification of the Northern Sahel 
  • Nile River water right disputes 

expected to worsen as Arctic ice caps continue to melt

Ongoing Disputes

Timeline of Events

More on this Crisis

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