Despite media reports, the Arctic is not a Wild West of nations struggling over resources. Unlike the Antarctic, where a treaty calls for demilitarization and environmental protection as well as outlining jurisdiction, the Arctic is home to millions, and in many cases has clear boundaries in place.
The Arctic has become a geopolitical hot topic lately. Although the region has long been inhabited, and many industries, including fisheries, oil, gas and mining, have tapped its resources, it is now coming under closer scrutiny by a number of countries for its geo-economic and strategic value. Improved technology and melting sea ice are making the Arctic the place where energy, trade, military and environmental interests overlap – and sometimes clash. New Arctic shipping routes can transport goods at lower prices, but may also deliver harmful invasive species into a fragile ecosystem.
That said, the rhetoric associated with the “race to the Arctic” is largely exaggerated.
Overall, the Arctic is a region of successful international collaboration among nations that may sometimes not see eye to eye on issues elsewhere in the world. These countries are using existing treaties, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which defines how nations can lay claim to undersea resources, and forums, including the Arctic Council, to come to agreements on how to use the Arctic, protect the environment and ensure the safety of those who live in the region or pass through it.
In 2008, the five Arctic coastal nations – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – signed the Ilulissat Declaration and agreed to use existing international laws, including UNCLOS, to settle disputes in the Arctic. Although the U.S. signed UNCLOS more than 30 years ago, Congress has yet to ratify the agreement.
UNCLOS entitles Arctic countries to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 370 kilometres (230 miles) off their coastlines. It also establishes rules for transit through international straits, such as traveling through without delay, and sets out the limit of a nation’s territorial sea.
Under UNCLOS, each country can extend its claim beyond the EEZ, up to 648 kilometres (403 miles) from the coastline. To do so, it must prove that the undersea geology is an extension of the country’s continental shelf. If it is successful, it can lay claim to the resources of the continental shelf and the organisms that live on the seabed. Many countries have been actively mapping the seafloor in an effort to acquire this new territory. Thus far, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia have submitted bids.
Some of these claims overlap one another. The Danish assert that 900,000 square km (347,500 square miles) of Arctic Ocean north of Greenland – including the North Pole – belong to them, but this is in conflict with the territories staked out by Russia and (most likely) Canada, which hasn’t completed its submission for the Arctic Ocean.
Collaboration Among Arctic States
In addition to turning to existing laws and agreements, the Arctic nations have tackled issues of Arctic safety and environmental protection by creating several agreements and codes of conduct for operating in the Arctic.
In 2011, the Arctic Council negotiated an agreement to strengthen search and rescue operations in the Arctic, its first binding agreement among the eight member states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. In 2014, the International Maritime Organization developed the Polar Code to prevent disasters. The code, which goes into effect in January 2017, and would apply to ships built in 2017 or later, makes it illegal for ships to dump oil or noxious material into polar waters, stipulates some aspects of ship design, such as the distance between the fuel oil tanks and the hull, and limits sewage and garbage pollution, including the prohibition of releasing noxious substances into Arctic waters.
In 2015, the five coastal Arctic nations agreed to keep fishing fleets out of the central Arctic Ocean to give scientists the chance to learn more about the fish that migrate to the high Arctic. No commercial fishing occurs there now, but that could change as climate change opens the seas and if warmer temperatures draw fish such as cod north.
Tension in the Arctic
But that is not to say that there aren’t some disagreements in the Arctic. In 2007, Russian explorers dived down more than three kilometres (just under two miles) into the Arctic Ocean to plant their national flag into the seabed beneath the North Pole. Although the act was largely a publicity stunt, it drew attention to the region and the jockeying over seafloor claims, and the natural resources that might be found there.
There are some waterways in Russia and Canada that are increasingly ice-free and whose ownership remains contested. Canada considers the Northwest Passage that winds through the Canadian archipelago to be internal waters. Russia sees the Northern Sea Route that passes along the Russian coast the same way. But other countries may consider these straits to be international waterways. In 1985, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea sailed through the Northwest Passage without formal permission from the Canadian government – a move Canada considered a breach of national sovereignty. The U.S. contends that the Northwest Passage is an international strait, whereas Canada argues that its own laws should apply to ships passing through those waters. The issue has not been resolved, but the waters have been largely impassable until recently.
In addition, military activity in the Arctic has been on the rise in recent years. For example, Russia has been flying bombers along the Norwegian coast and across the North Pole. In 2014, Norway saw almost seven times as many warplanes near its coast than it did in 2004.