On Tuesday, a document from the Danish government was leaked. Its title: “Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020,” echoing the Russian strategy for the Arctic through 2020. In the document, which is to be officially released next month after Danish parliamentary deliberations, the government outlines its plans to claim the North Pole as an extension of Greenland. Predictably, Western and Russian media reports have taken to this story like moths to a flame – and here am I, too, writing about it. The Associated Press reports that Denmark “plans to lay claim to parts of the North Pole and other areas in the Arctic.” Krista Mahr writes in Time Magazine’s Ecocentric blog, “With little oil and gas resources believed to be beneath the Pole itself, as well as a publicly stated intention to support Greenland in its quest for autonomy, why Denmark is gunning for this is still unclear.”
Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen confirmed that Denmark will in fact seek to “annex the North Pole,” but affirmed that the North Pole is not “a goal in itself.” The truth of the matter is that Denmark is not “gunning” for the North Pole. That sacred cartographic point simply happens to fall well within Denmark’s claims to its continental shelf, all according to UNCLOS rules and regulations. The North Pole has a lot of symbolism in the history of Arctic exploration and in the media today, but as Mahr observed, it is insignificant in terms of its amount of mineral resources. The seabed there lies 4,300 meters under the water’s surface – much too deep for current extraction methods. Surely, the North Pole still has some symbolic and nationalist value for countries today. Nationalism in part explains why Canada and Denmark go back and forth every few years placing flags on Hans Island. But I think that in this instance, Denmark could simply not avoid claiming the North Pole if it wanted to seek the full extension of Greenland’s continental shelf. It would be more bizarre were Denmark to leave it out. Setting up the stage for a potential clash in views, the Danish newspaper Information reports that Greenland’s Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist privately believes that the North Pole should “remain the property of all mankind.” He once referred to it as “Humanity’s North Pole.”
The Voice of Russia offers a slightly more comprehensive take on the leaked document. Journalist Ananyan Artyom states that Denmark has always tried to keep its relations with other Arctic states “balanced,” because “Copenhagen will lose more than all the other participants in a re-division.” I’m not quite sure why this would be true. Were the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to decide that the Lomonosov Ridge was an extension of Greenland or Canada rather than Russia, surely the latter country would lose the most. In any case, as this map by the University of Durham shows, when Russia submits its new territorial claims to the UN, we might expect it to also try to “annex” the North Pole. The final recommendations on the boundary delimitations will be made either based on science, or, if the findings from seabed samples and seismic mapping are inconclusive, by a tribunal – and likely not in the theater of war.
Perhaps a more interesting revelation in the document is that Denmark is emphasizing that Greenland should have the right to make decisions regarding the oil and gas industry’s operations in its land. Information quotes the strategy document as saying, “It is a key goal of the [Danish] Kingdom that decisions regarding the management, use of resources, and protection of the environment be taken by the Kingdom’s Arctic peoples themselves.” Nuuk, not Copehnagen, will then have the ultimate say on when and how drilling can take place off its shores – and perhaps up to 350 kilometers away from its shores. This is yet another step in Greenland’s drive towards complete sovereignty, which could ultimately make it the sixth Arctic state. What a field day that would be for newspapers covering the so-called Great Game in the Arctic, with so many new possible permutations of conflicts in the Arctic Ocean.