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North Pole

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The Danish Santa

Saint Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas) has had to put up with a lot over the years. After the latest blow, he may not show up at all next week.

First they decided that he had to reside at the North Pole, where the temperature often falls to 50 degrees below zero and there are several months of complete darkness each year just when the work-load peaks. The south coast of what is now Turkey, where St. Nick originally lived and worked, was much nicer.

Then in a series of ads in the 1930s the Coca-Cola Company crystallised his image as a fat old man wearing clothes that are frankly a fashion disaster. And now, as a final indignity, they are trying to make him a Danish citizen.

On Monday, Denmark submitted documents claiming the North Pole as Danish territory (since the Danish kingdom includes Greenland). It was a “historic and important milestone” for Denmark, said Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard. It was also provocative and pointless, but he forgot to mention that.

The Danish government does not actually want or need the North Pole, and does not imagine that it would derive any practical benefit from “owning” it. It is just responding to the equally baseless Canadian declaration last December that the North Pole is sovereign Canadian territory, or at least that the seabed 4,000 metres beneath it is.

The way that claim came about is quite instructive. Canada has a huge archipelago of Arctic islands, and for years Canadian government scientists have been gathering evidence to support a Canadian claim to exclusive economic rights over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean adjacent to those islands. All five countries that border the Arctic Ocean have been preparing similar claims to the seabed off their own coasts.

Until last December, Canada made no claim to the North Pole. It was only days before the country was due to submit its final claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government finally woke up.

The claim wasn’t in the original submission because Canada has no real case in international law. Even if the Commission ends up accepting the contention by Russia, Canada and Denmark (on behalf of its Greenland territory) that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge extends their respective bits of the continental shelf into the central Arctic Ocean, the principle of “equidistance” would give the North Pole itself to the Danes or the Russians.

For the past nine years Prime Minister Harper has travelled to the Canadian Arctic every summer to give the Canadian media a “photo op”. He promises new ice-breakers and an Arctic naval base, he stands on a submarine as fighters fly overhead, he sits in the cockpit of a Canadian F-18, he shoots a rifle in a military exercise – every year a new image of him personally defending Canadian sovereignty from some unspecified threat.

There is no threat to Canadian territory, of course, and even in terms of seabed rights Canada’s only serious dispute is with the United States (over a bit of seabed north of the Yukon-Alaska border in the Beaufort Sea). But Harper’s pose as the staunch defender of Canadian “rights” serves his conservative, nationalist agenda and plays well with the Canadian media.

So when Harper’s minions belatedly realised that the government’s scientists and civil servants had not included the North Pole in Canada’s claim to the Commission, Harper slammed the brakes on and demanded that they rewrite it. He will have been told by the experts that Canada has no legal case – but he also knows that by the time that becomes clear to the public, many years from now, he will no longer be in office.

Canada didn’t submit its final claim last December after all. The poor boffins in Ottawa are struggling to reformulate it to include the North Pole, while Harper trumpets his determination to protect Canadian “rights”. And the Danes, who were previously willing to let sleeping dogs lie, have now responded by making their own rather more plausible claim.

The Russians may be next. President Vladimir Putin also likes to be photographed in the Arctic, surrounded by military kit and bravely defending Russian sovereignty. It’s getting ridiculous – but might it also be getting out of hand?

Probably not. There has been much loose talk about allegedly huge reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic seabed, but not much actual drilling is likely to happen in the challenging conditions of the Arctic Ocean when the oil price is below $80 per barrel. (It’s currently in the mid-$50s, and will probably be down there for a long time.)

There’s really nothing else up there that’s worth fighting over.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (*The claim…Russians”; and “There…media”)

Oil and the Arctic

25 May 2008

Oil and the Arctic

By Gwynne Dyer

What connects oil at $135 a barrel with last month’s discovery of huge cracks in the Ward Hunt ice shelf off Ellesmere Island at the top of Canada’s Arctic archipelago? And what might connect those two things with a new, even Colder War?

The cracks in the ice, further evidence that the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is melting fast, were discovered by scientists tagging along with a Canadian army snowmobile expedition that was officially called a “sovereignty patrol.” The army was showing the flag because Canada, like the other Arctic countries, suspects that valuable resources will become accessible there once the ice melts. And the most valuable of those resources are oil and gas.

The strongest evidence for accelerated melting is the fact that more and more of the Arctic sea ice is thin “first-year” ice. Only about a metre (three feet) thick, it spreads across the ocean each winter, but tends to melt the following summer.

Melting has taken big bites out of the edge of the much thicker “permanent” ice in most recent summers, and unless some of the “first-year” ice that replaces it lasts through the following winter, then the melting really is speeding up. So everybody is watching to see what happens this summer, explained Dr Jim Maslanik of the University of Colorado — Boulder.

“If we see all the first-year ice melt out again, then probably we will have another record reduction in ice cover,” said Maslanik. “If we see this a couple of years running, that tells us…that we are about twenty or thirty years ahead of where we are supposed to be based on the climate models.”

If we are heading for an Arctic Ocean that is mostly ice-free in the summer, then drilling for gas and oil beneath that ocean can soon begin. Hardly a week goes by without somebody pointing to the US Geological Survey’s report that the Arctic basin contains a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. But the event that did most to trigger this new concern about sovereignty was Artur Chilingarov’s publicity stunt last summer.

Chilingarov is a polar explorer of the old school (he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union in the old days for saving an ice-bound ship in Antarctica), but he is now deputy speaker of the Russian Duma (parliament) and Vladimir Putin’s personal “envoy” to the Arctic. Last summer, he took a three-man submarine down to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean precisely at the North Pole, and planted a Russian flag in the seabed.

“The Arctic is Russian. We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass,” he said afterwards, and affected surprise at the fact that other countries with an Arctic coastline saw this as a challenge to their sovereignty. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, flew to the Arctic the following week, and subsequently announced that Canada would built six to eight new “ice-strengthened” warships for Arctic patrols.

The other three countries with Arctic coastlines, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland) and Norway, are equally suspicious of Russian intentions. The real issue is about who owns the rights to the seabed, and the Russian claim is pretty ambitious.

Moscow claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, the subsea mountain range that goes straight across the middle of the Arctic Ocean, is an extension of the Russian territorial shelf, and therefore belongs to Russia all the way to the North Pole. Alternatively, if the Law of the Sea tribunal does not ultimately accept that claim, Moscow may have an even broader claim in reserve.

In the early 20th century seven countries laid claim to parts of Antarctica on the basis of “sectors”: pie-shaped slices running along lines of longitude (which converge at the poles). The width of those slices depended on where the various claimants owned territories near Antarctica, mostly islands in the Southern Ocean. Those claims are dormant because of a subsequent treaty banning economic development in Antarctica, but the precedent has not been forgotten.

By that precedent, Russia could lay claim to about half the Arctic Ocean on the basis of lines of longitude running from the far eastern and western ends of the country up to the North Pole — and in 1924 the old Soviet Union did precisely that. Nobody else accepted that claim then, and they wouldn’t now if Russia raised it again. But Russia has the big Arctic ports and the nuclear-powered ice-breakers to make its claim stick, and nobody else does.

That is where the current panic comes from. It probably won’t end up in a new Cold War, but it has certainly got the hens in the chicken coop all stirred up.

As is often the case with hens, they are over-reacting. Russia is in a more assertive mood than it was a decade ago, but there are no signs that it intends to pursue its claims by force. Moreover, there is no serious basis for the claim that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic Ocean.

It always seemed implausible, given that the Arctic Ocean only accounts for slightly less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, but in fact the US Geological Survey never said anything of the sort. Neither has any other authoritative source, yet this factoid has gained such currency that it even influences government policy. Isn’t it interesting how readily people will believe something when they really want to?


This article is 925 words. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4, 5 and 9. (“The strongest…models”; and “The other..ambitious”)

Arctic Scramble

10 August 2007

Arctic Scramble

By Gwynne Dyer

Among the headlines I never expected to see, the top three were “Pope Marries,” “President Bush Admits Error,” and “Canada Uses Military Might,” but there it was, staring up at me from a British newspaper: “Canada Uses Military Might in Arctic Scramble.” Read a little further into the story and the “military might” turns out to be some armed icebreakers and two small military bases in the high Arctic, neither of which will be operational for some time to come, but all the same….

At the beginning of August, mini-submarines planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed at the North Pole, symbolically claiming the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range, as part of the country’s continental shelf. If the claim were accepted, it would expand the Exclusive Economic Zone in which only Russians can exploit minerals and other seabed resources all the way to the North Pole, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how planting a titanium-encased Russian flag on the sea-floor advanced Russia’s case.

Days later, Danish scientists headed for the Arctic to gather evidence for their claim that the Lomonosov ridge is actually an extension of Greenland’s continental shelf, and therefore belongs to Denmark. “We will be collecting data for a possible demand,” explained Christian Marcussen of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. And then last Friday Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, flew to Resolute Bay in the territory of Nunavut for the photo-op of a lifetime.

“Canada’s new government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: use it or lose it,” said Harper, for the second time in a week trotting out a phrase that was originally coined to describe one of the uglier realities of nuclear strategy. Nunavut is one of the coldest human settlements on earth, but Harper was having the time of his life. For once there was some sort of threat to Canada’s sovereignty, or at least it could be made to look as if there were, and he was the staunch patriot standing up for Canada’s rights. What politician could ask for more?

It’s actually the Canadian government that has led this round of Arctic posturing, beginning with its declaration in April that the Northwest Passage, a series of channels between Canadian-owned Arctic Islands that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans if they weren’t choked with ice most of the year, would no longerbe classified as “territorial waters” (through which foreign ships enjoy the right of innocent passage, although foreign warships are expected to seek permission). In future they will be “Canadian internal waters,” over which Canada exercises complete control.

It was a crowd-pleasing gesture in Canada, especially since the United States has long denied that the Northwest Passage is even Canadian territorial waters, insisting instead that it is “international waters” over which Canada has no control. Washington has even sent warships through from time to time, deliberately not asking permission, which greatly annoyed Canadian nationalists. And global warming means that by 2015 or 2020 the Northwest Passage might even be open to commercial shipping for five or six months a year, so Harper had a plausible pretext for getting excited.

But it was a pretext, not a reason, since there is actually no danger that the United States is going to steal the Northwest Passage from Canada, or blockade it, or even attack Canadian ships. Yet Harper has announced that Canada will spend $7 billion on six new armed ice-breakers to assert its sovereignty in Arctic waters, build a new deep-water port at Nanisivik on the northern tip of Baffin Island for both military and civilian use, and even open a new army training centre for cold-weather warfare at Resolute Bay.

This all makes great copy, but just whom are these soldiers supposed to fight? Russians infiltrating the Canadian Arctic on foot? And what are the guns on the new Canadian ice-breakers for? Fighting the US Navy the next time it sends a ship through the Northwest Passage without permission? There is a scramble for the Arctic, but it is not military. It’s about laying claim to potentially valuable resources on the basis of geographical and geological data, within the framework laid down by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

The 1982 treaty, which now has 155 member-states, sets out the rules for claiming seabed rights, which is the only issue of real economic importance to the various Arctic players. It’s all about mapping the seabed, doing the seismic work, and registering your claims within ten years of ratifying the UNCLOS treaty. In Canada’s case, that means by 2013, and it would do better to concentrate on that task, like the Russians and the Danes, rather than make meaningless military gestures.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 1. (“Among…the same”)