Battle for the North Pole - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Battle for the North Pole

Battle for the North Pole

By Lorena O'Neil

A Nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker "Yamal" unloads tourists at the North Pole.
SourceGordon Wiltsie/Corbis


The Arctic is massive and rich in resources, and as multiple countries lay their claims to different areas, the North Pole is an increasingly popular prize to be won.

By Lorena O'Neil

Is Canada the Grinch who stole the North Pole?

Not exactly, but the country’s foreign minister, John Baird, stirred up controversy by announcing that Canada intends to lay claim to the North Pole as part of a bigger request for greater control over the Arctic. This would put Canada in competition with Denmark and Russia, both of whom are also seeking to claim sovereignty over the North Pole. But why is everyone fighting over the North Pole anyway?

The answer involves emotions, politics and quite a bit of Santa Claus. (Seriously.)

Arctic Resources by the Numbers

The Arctic accounts for approximately:

  • 13% of world’s undiscovered oil
  • 30% of undiscovered natural gas
  • 20% of undiscovered natural gas liquids

Of these estimated resources, about 84 percent are expected to occur offshore.

To understand the battle for the North Pole, one must first understand how resource-rich the surrounding Arctic is. The region spans some 14.5 million square kilometers (5.5 million miles); the Arctic seabed is believed to contain 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable energy resources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In recent years, Arctic sea ice has been shrinking further and further, making resources more accessible to drilling, and opening faster, cheaper shipping lanes to move them south. 

This creates vast potential wealth opportunities, as well as an eagerness among neighboring countries to protect their coastlines from environmental disasters in an increasingly sensitive landscape that gets more dangerous as global warming gets worse, explains former Canadian Ambassador Gar Pardy. 

It’s a lot of territory to fight over. Which is why countries like Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia and the U.S. have been collecting scientific evidence to submit to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and solidify their claims.

John in suit and tie far right with presentation board on left

Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird 

Source Chris Wattie/Reuters/Corbis

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, finalized in 1982, allowed countries to win rights to ocean floor beyond their borders, as long as they can scientifically prove the seabed is an extension of their continental shelf. This would potentially extend a country’s sovereignty past the 200 nautical miles out from their shores, which is a right they already have. Additionally, if a country extends its continental shelf, it is allowed to drill on it, while it is not permitted to drill on a seabed, relates Pardy.

The prime minister is playing Russian roulette with an unregistered gun.

After more than a decade of Arctic studies and more than $200 million of research, Canada was ready to submit a full application for a large chunk of Atlantic seabed rights. One problem? That application didn’t include the North Pole. In a surprising turn of events – at the prime minister’s insistence – Canada ended up only submitting a partial application and announced it would submit the rest once it investigated its claim to the North Pole.

Canada effectively bought time to attempt to make a scientific claim to the North Pole – an unforeseen decision considered shocking and a bit aggressive, especially by Denmark and Russia.

Pardy, in an op-ed about Canada’s bid for the North Pole, points out two possibilities for why the country’s submission was partial: Either there was little or no evidence Canada had a claim to the North Pole, or the experts were not properly informed about how much research they needed to support the North Pole claim. Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have bought Canada more time to strengthen its claim, but Pardy writes that the prime minister is ”playing Russian roulette with an unregistered gun.” Canada’s moves did not go unnoticed: Putin reportedly vowed to increase Russia’s military presence in the region.

Camp made in middle of arctic, surrounded by snow. There is an icebreaker in the background

The Russian drifting station North Pole-38. Nuclear icebreaker Rossya is in the background.

Source Corbis

Canada’s claim to the North Pole is likely a weak one, despite the prominence of the Great White North in the country’s culture. Even if Canada and Denmark “win” over Russia by demonstrating that the Central Arctic Ocean is part of a prolongation of the North American landmap, the North Pole would end up on the Danish side, explains Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Who Owns the Arctic?

Byers thinks this entire situation is “absolutely” about domestic politics. Prime Minister Harper is up for re-election in 2015. ”Most Canadians know relatively little about the North Pole except what they learned when they were children,” says Byers. ”Rather than engage in a complicated explanation concerning the Law of the Sea and the physical realities of the North Pole, Mr. Harper chose to punt this past 2015.”

He says it is fundamental to understand the Arctic as a large region. The north coast of Alaska is closer to Mexico than the North Pole. ”The North Pole is one point in a large and very hostile ocean,” says Byers. ”It is more than 400 miles from any coastline, located in 12,000 feet of water, in total darkness for several months each winter and it’s covered with drifting sea ice.” Oil drilling is at best ”generations away” from happening in the North Pole itself, and the closest current drilling spot is 1,000 miles south of it.

Santa Claus, who is magical, will continue to live in an international zone.

While the importance of various countries’ sovereignty over the Arctic is one thing, Byers believes the North Pole is only getting this much attention because of people’s emotional ties to Santa Claus, combined with politicians and journalists using it as editorial fodder around Christmas. (Guilty as charged.) 

Santa with a child walking across snow field

Source Corbis

The international process deciding sovereignty over the North Pole will move at a glacial place and could take decades before reaching a conclusion. Pardy advocates declaring the area part of the “common heritage of humanity,” which was referenced in past treaties concerning outer space in 1967 and the moon in 1979.

“Crucially and most importantly, the surface of the ocean remains international,” says Byers, laughing. “Santa Claus, who is magical, will continue to live in an international zone and not within the territory of any country.”

”I’m assuming he lives on the surface rather than 12,000 feet underwater.”

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