While American explorer Robert Edwin Peary, Sr. may have been the first person to reach the North Pole just over 100 years ago in 1906, countries are still vying for ownership over this vast, deserted, and inhospitable corner of the world. In the latest gambit in the high-stakes quest for the resource-rich, waterway-laden region — quickly becoming more strategic due to climate change — on Monday Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird announced Canada’s intentions to lay claim to the North Pole.
While the process of navigating the UN’s diplomatic chambers is likely to take years, and many view Canada’s appeal as a long shot, Baird said the government is working with scientists on a future submission to the UN that argues that the outer limits of the country’s continental shelf include the pole.
“We are determined to ensure that all Canadians benefit from the tremendous resources that are to be found in Canada’s Far North,” Baird explained at a news conference in Ottawa.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the 18-million-square-mile region contains 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of its oil — a fact lost on no one, especially not the leader of a country.
Michael Byers, an expert on Arctic and international law at the University of British Columbia, told the Guardian that the decision by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper was also politically charged.
“[Harper] does not want to be the prime minister seen publicly as having surrendered the north pole, even if the scientific facts don’t support a Canadian claim,” Byers said. “What he’s essentially doing here is holding this place, standing up for Canadian sovereignty, while in private he knows full well that position is untenable.”
Untenable in part because for Canada to reach the North Pole territorially involves claiming an undersea mountain range between Ellesmere Island, Canada’s most northern land mass, and Russia’s east Siberian coast. Under current law, countries have sovereign rights to resources within 200 nautical miles of their territorial waterways.
Russia and Denmark also say the underwater mountain range, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is part of their respective landmasses. The U.S. and Norway, while not claiming the ridge, are also amassing evidence to back their claims in the region.
“This is about a long-term investment in potential resources,” Martin Pratt, director of research at Durham University’s International Boundaries Research Unit, told The Verge. “If states don’t claim their territory, there’s a possibility that the global community will say, ‘No, sorry, you missed your chance.’”
According to the Guardian, Canada’s UN submission is composed mostly of undersea coordinates mapping the government’s claims to the country’s extended continental shelf.
Last month the Pentagon released a comprehensive strategy for the Arctic for the first time. The strategy says that diminishing Arctic ice is bringing increased human activity including shipping, fishing, tourism, and fossil fuel extraction. Many experts believe that due to climate change, the Arctic will be ice-free by 2030.
In September, a cargo ship became the first bulk carrier to pass through the Northwest Passage, a long sought-after commercial route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was carrying coal, the burning of which is a major contributor to climate change.
According to the Pentagon document a main focus for the Pentagon in the region is to prepare the US to “work collaboratively with allies and partners to promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region.”
This emphasis on collaboration could prove exceedingly important, considering after Canada announced its intentions to claim the North Pole, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s military to step up its presence in the Arctic. In 2007 Russians planted a flag on the seabed under the North Pole.
“I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic,” Putin told a Russian defense ministry meeting in televised remarks.
In a nod to the international community, last week week Putin also said he doesn’t want to escalate the tensions over the Arctic. “I generally proceed from the fact that we will never have any conflicts on such global scale, especially with such countries as the United States. On the contrary, we need to develop cooperation, partnership.”
Responsibility for processing the claims falls on the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Claims on the Arctic could take decades for the Commission to get to, which processes about four submissions a year and currently has a backlog of over 40 related to other global waterways.
In the meantime, Arctic sea ice will continue to melt at alarming rates, causing not only strategic recalibration by national governments but also changes to climate patterns and weather far beyond the Arctic boundary.