A team of scientists from Denmark and Canada are preparing to map out the Arctic Ocean with the eventual goal of extending their countries’ territorial reaches. The researchers have already set up a base camp at Ward Hunt Ice Shelf on Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost piece of land. Expeditions will also set out from Greenland, as it is an autonomous province Denmark. Such cooperation between Denmark and Canada draws a contrast with earlier disputes over Hans Island, which both countries claim.

Two types of technologies will be employed to assess the Arctic. The first is sonar surveys by helicopter, which will be done while flying over the continental shelf. The second is gravitational measurements taken by airplane, called “aerogravity.” Scientists will use this technology when flying over the Arctic Sea and North Pole.

Canada and Denmark are hoping that the surveys will provide proof that the North American continent stretches out into the Arctic Sea, encompassing the underwater Alpha and Lomonosov mountain ranges. Canada must submit its Arctic territorial claims to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) by 2013. A country’s must submit its claims ten years after ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Under UNCLOS, a country can claim territory stretching up to 200 miles out from its border. Any claims beyond that area must be submitted to the CLCS for arbitration. The scramble for territory is more heated in the Arctic than most other places in the world due to its rich resources, including oil, gas, and minerals like magnesium and gold. With the ice melting, countries could also control navigation passages.

Denmark has a particular interest in gaining territory both to the north and west of Greenland, the latter of which the country believes will be split evenly with Canada. Last summer, the USGS found that Denmark could potentially be sitting on up to 14% of the Arctic’s oil and gas reserves. But even if the CLCS accepts Danish claims as valid, domestic disputes are likely to erupt over whether the area belongs to Greenland – which is moving ever closer to full independence – or Denmark itself. The National People’s Party in Denmark claims that since the Inuits never settled the northern part of Greenland, they have no right to the profits realized from resources in the region.


Russia has also set its sights on the Lomonosov range, along with the Mendeleev ridge. Russian territorial claims stretch all the way to the North Pole and could potentially conflict with Canadian and Danish claims. When Russia first lodged a formal claim for the mountains in 2001, the CLCS instructed the country to conduct more geological research. The next meeting of the CLCS is in 2009, which is also when Russia must finalize all of its territorial claims. In its initial claim, Russia stated that the mountains were natural extensions of the continent, rather than oceanic or submarine ridges.

Map of Russian Arctic Claims. © BBC.
Map of Russian Arctic Claims. © BBC.

On the contrary, the U.S. disputed this claim, arguing that the “ridge is a free standing feature in the deep oceanic part of the Arctic Ocean Basin, and not … a component of the continental shelf of either Russia on any other state.” Yet in an aggressive move which could be taken as Russia trying to back up its claims, it memorably planted a flag underneath the North Pole in August 2007. The Canadian foreign minister at the time, Peter McKay, joked that “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go … just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.”

So the 15th century had flags, while the 21st century has sonar and aerogravity. The technology may have changed, but the desire for territory still lies at the heart of the matter.

Additional links:

“Danish and Canadian scientists set to map Arctic Ocean”, by Randy Boswell, from Canada.com

Russia’s Claim in the Arctic and the Vexing Issue of Ridges in UNCLOS,” by Mark Benitah, in the American Society of International Law (Nov. 2007).

“Canada’s Legal Claims over the Arctic,” by Robert Dufresne (from the Canadian Library of Parliament)

Detailed map of Arctic claims (International Boundaries Research Unit & University of Durham)

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