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.
Territories Under Dispute
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: 8.99 million square kilometers (November 2020)
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
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.
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December 1973 Onwards:
Hans Island is a small 1.3 kilometer island in the Kennedy Channel of the Nares Strait, found between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland (A Danish territory). The island is uninhabited and lies equidistant between the two territories, a 1973 treaty between Denmark and Canada could not agree on the status of the island. As recently as April 11, 2012, both states have considered dividing the island in half, but an agreement still has not been reached on the matter.
Timeline of Events
1 June 1925: Canadian Amendment to the Northwest Territories Act
In 1925, Canada became the first state to extend its national borders to the Arctic region, up to the North Pole.
15 April 1926: The USSR Declares Territorial Rights to all Lands and Islands between its territory and the North Pole
In 1925, the USSR established a large swath of area as its sovereign territory, claiming all islands and lands between its state and the North Pole as a part of its national territory. The assertion of territorial rights was primarily a response to Canadianclaim of its territory extending from its own sovereign land to the North Pole.
July 1946: Canada Claims Territorial Rights Over Northern Sea Extending to the North Pole
A Canadian Ambassador in Washington, DC, Lester Pearson, published “Canada Looks down North”, in which he attempted to claim territorial rights not only to the islands North of Canada but also the Sea North of Canada between the meridians of Canada’s east and west boundaries, which extends up to the Northern Pole.
28 July 1984: Danish Raise Flag on Disputed Hans Islands
In 1984, Denmark claimed territorial sovereignty over the Hans island. The island is uninhabited but lays equidistant between Denmark and Canada, causing both to submit territory claims over the island.
16 November 1994: The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) enters into force
The convention defines the rights to use the World’s oceans. The convention established a Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is highly pertinent to the Arctic.
19 September 1996: Establishment of the Arctic Council:
The 1996 Ottawa Declaration saw the formation of the Arctic Council. The Council includes the Arctic states of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and America. The Arctic Council was designed to increase cooperation, coordination, and diplomacy among the Arctic States with the involvement of indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants. The Arctic Council has performed studies on climate change’s effects in the Arctic.
20 December 2001: Russia Claims Lomonosov Ridge as an Extension of its Continental Shelf
In 2001, Russia claimed the Lomonosov Ridge under the reasoning that it was an extension of their continental shelf and thus a valid territorial claim. This claim would have awarded Russia nearly-one half of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole.
2 August 2007: Russia Claims the North Pole by Planting Russian Flag on Arctic Seabed
In 2007, Russia claimed the Lomonosov Ridge, a large seabed that is estimated to have high levels of natural resources. Russia was the first to enter a territory claim for the ridge, however both Denmark and Canada have followed with their own claims.
December 2013: Canada Announced Territorial Claim over the Lomonosov Ridge
In 2013, Canada announced its territorial claim over the Lomonosov Ridge. The claim contradicts both Denmark and Russia’s claim on the same territory, which is estimated to have high levels of natural resources in its seabed.
16 December 2014: Denmark Submits Territorial Claim over the Lomonosov Ridge
In December, 2014, Denmark officially submitted a territorial claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the Lomonosov Ridge. The Danish claim argues that the ridge is an extension of Greenland’s landmass and being that Greenland is a Danish territory so is the Ridge.
23 November 2020: Temperatures in the Arctic much higher than expected
Recent temperatures were an average of 12 degrees Fahrenheit above average for all 7.7 million square miles of the Arctic, demonstrating the effects of climate change that are impacting the Arctic at an accelerated rate.
Responding to climate change has been at the top of much of the world’s to-do list lately, particularly that of the United Nations after their