Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Danish Pole

According to a leaked report, Denmark is set to lay claim to the North Pole. Officially, the North Pole belongs to no one, but both the Danes and the Russians would like to change that. Their actions are another indication that the Arctic region is heating up politically along with physically.
Climbing global temperatures are making the formerly inaccessible Arctic wastelands valuable territory as ice retreats and new, shorter sea routes between Asia, Europe and North America open up. The Arctic is also estimated to contain 25% of the world's remaining undiscovered natural gas and oil reserves, all of which makes ownership of chunks of the Arctic a prized commodity.

Under current international law, the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean can all claim the first 13 miles from shore as their national territory; each country can also claim an area of ocean 200 miles from their coast as their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As the name suggest, each nation has the exclusive rights to use this piece of ocean for economic interests – fishing, drilling for oil and gas, whatever. But there is a clause in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (or UNCLOS) that allows nations to extend this EEZ beyond the 200-mile limit if they can demonstrate that a geographic feature, like a mountain range, extends from their territory out beyond the 200-mile limit. That's just what the Russians and Danes are trying to do, ironically with the same feature, a sub-sea mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge: Russia claims the Ridge runs from northern Siberia out under the sea, directly beneath the North Pole, the Danes claim that the Ridge runs from Greenland (which is still nominally controlled by Denmark) under the Pole as well.

Eventually this will be a matter for the United Nations to settle. Of course the situation could get even more confused if Greenland were to gain their independence from Denmark. Greenland recently gained a large measure of autonomy from Denmark, despite having a population of only about 60,000. Greenlanders now control their own domestic affairs, while foreign policy decisions are still made by Denmark. As a measure of Greenland's growing clout, its capital city, Nuuk (pop. 15,000) recently hosted an international gathering of representatives from the world's Arctic nations, the Arctic Council, which included the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The purpose of the meeting was to begin discussion about how the resources and territory of the Arctic could be used and shared, with the Arctic Council serving as a mediator in these affairs.
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