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November 4, 2010

The Arctic: not up for grabs

Reuel S. Amdur

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The popular view that the Arctic is an area of massive unresolved claims is simply wrong. So says Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

He was lecturing at Ottawa’s First Unitarian Congregation on October 27.  The title of his talk, “Who Owns the Arctic?” is also the title of his recent book.

Ownership in the Arctic is determined mostly by science, not politics.  The Law of the Sea gives states bordering the ocean 12 nautical miles of ownership.  In addition, countries have another 200 nautical miles as an exclusive economic zone.

The question of where the 12 miles and the 200 miles begin is answered by the topography of the ocean floor and geological factors.  Mapping these features is key to that answer, and the mapping is an ongoing process.

Hans Island, a barren 1.3 square kilometer piece of property, is the subject of a land dispute between Canada and Denmark, acting for Greenland. 

In the 1970's, Canada and Denmark agreed on a boundary between their Arctic claims.  The boundary went north and south of the island but left the status of the island itself unresolved. 

According to Byers, if the boundary line is extended through the island, it would cut it in half.  In the meantime, says Byers, “Canadian politicians go there from time to time to get some favorable publicity by showing the flag.”  The exercise is otherwise pointless.

The only significant disputes regarding boundaries on water have been between Russia and Norway and between Canada and the United States, on the Beaufort Sea.  In the case of the Russia-Norway dispute, the two countries agreed to divide the area in question in two.

Byers demonstrated that the conflicting claims to the Beaufort Sea have surprising consequences.  If the approach favored by the United States is applied, it would indeed give them the disputed area.  However, if the line is extended, it would give Canada an area further north currently considered American.  That happenstance should make a negotiated settlement relatively straightforward.  In the meantime, the two countries are engaged in joint explorations of the sea bed.

While the ownership of the Arctic is for all intents and purposes all but settled, Canada and the United States are locked in a dispute as to use of the Northwest Passage.  Both countries agree that the passage is Canadian, with Canadian land both north and south of it.  However, the United States claims a right of innocent passage, arguing that the passage constitutes international waters. 

Byers believes that the United States, the only country making this claim, may have reason to reconsider, not because of nation-states using the passage freely, but because of non-state interests, such as smugglers, terrorists, and criminals.  The danger is illustrated by the thwarted effort of a ship of Norwegian Hells Angels to go through the passage.  In any case, our claim is strengthened by the fact that Inuit have lived on the passage.

40% of Canada is in the Arctic, where there are 1900 islands.  Alaska is America’s Arctic presence.  Russia gets 20% of its GDP from the Arctic.  Other Arctic nations are Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. 

Byers is concerned about what is happening to the Arctic. Pollution is still a concern, even after the Pollution Prevention Act.  Climate change is happening big time in the Arctic. “I visited the Arctic during four summers,” he said.  A massive 150 foot thick glacier “had completely disappeared by the time of my fourth visit.”  The problem is the production of carbon dioxide.  “We have a heavy carbon footprint.”

Arctic melting is going on at an accelerating rate.  Ice and snow reflect 85% of the heat back into the atmosphere, while open water absorbs it.  As the water gets under the ice, the process proceeds more rapidly.  We are doing it to ourselves.

Finally, a word about Peter MacKay and his hysteria about Russian planes approaching Canada. First, they never entered Canadian air space.  Second, such flights occur all the time and, according to NORAD, they are useful in testing radar defenses.  Even the Americans do not buy his nonsense.

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