Sunday, October 14, 2007

Territory Disputes at the North Pole

Ever since Canada was first created, the Canadian Arctic Islands have been part of Canada and no one has ever tried to take them away. But now that we have Global Warming, the polar ice is receding, and that is exposing more of the water and land which now makes it possible to drill for oil and valuable minerals further north than ever before. In fact, a recent US geological study estimates that 25% of the worlds remaining oil may be in the north polar region.

Also, the receding ice is beginning to make Canada's Northwest Passage navigable by normal, non-icebreaker ships for part of the year. This brings some economic advantage to shippers who could cut thousands of miles off trips between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Suddenly, the far north is becoming valuable, and various countries are trying to steal away Canada's sovereign property as they grab what they can, now that they see it is going to be worth something very soon.

There is a tiny football-field-sized island named "Hans Island" in the Kennedy Channel between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Denmark's Greenland. This tiny dot of land is not valuable for itself, but rather for the fact that it establishes a land foothold on the Kennedy Strait which runs up from Canada's Baffin Island straight up to the North Polar sea. There is an economic zone that extends over 200 miles of water around any country's land. Canada has had Hans Island all along, and it shows as being within Canada's territorial waters.

But now that oil may be found in the Kennedy Strait, Denmark wants to claim Hans Island in order to take a much larger piece of the Kennedy Strait in which to set up water-based oil rigs. Whomever owns the tiny middle island, then lays claim to most of the water rights all along the channel up to the north polar sea.
Canada and Denmark have been fighting a 'polite' battle over this tiny island for the last few years now. Denmark showed up one day and planted a flag and left a bottle of Brandy and two glasses and a sign that read "Welcome to Danish Territory. Have a drink". So the Canadians took down the Danish flag, put up a Canadian flag, drank the brandy, and replaced it with a bottle of Canadian whiskey and a sign saying, 'Welcome to Canada. Have a drink"

The United States
The Northwest Passage is clearly inside Canadian territory. It is an internal waterway within Canada much like the Mississippi is an internal waterway within the US. It is one of the water (ice) passageways that cuts through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and lies within two Canadian provinces(territories) - Nunavut, and Northwest Territories. In the map below, the NP is that channel of water running directly across the middle of this territory between the islands.

Now, because it is about to be more navigable, which allows ships to cut shipping time from the Atlantic to Asia by two weeks, it now has economic value, and so there are those in the US government that are now claiming that it is international waters. Specifically, the US ambassador to Canada, Wilkins said "The US does not recognize Canada'a claim on the Northwest Passage".

They are basing this on the fact that the Canadian Arctic is not highly populated enough. Banks Island, Baffin Island, Victoria Island, and other Canadian islands and the Canadian mainland are sparsely populated with smaller towns and cities such as Inuvik, Sachs Harbor, Iqaluit, Resolute Bay, Pond Inlet, Cambridge Bay, Alert, Grise Fiord, Tuktayuktuk, Fort Collinson, Holman, etc.

But because these towns and cities are not large enough to have millions of people, that means that the US State Department feels that they should be able to take the passage and use it to transport oil from Alaska to the US east coast, as if it belongs to the US. That's like Canada saying that they do not recognize the US's claim on Montana and North Dakota.

Russian president Putin has made the extremely bold move of trying to claim the entire North Polar underwater continental shelf. They even went to the extent of planting a flag underwater at the north pole itself a couple of months ago. This does not necessarily impinge upon Canadian soverereign territory, but it is shocking and alarming that Putin would make such a bold grab for resources from an international body of water. Here is an article:
This is undeniably an international body of water, like the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. Imagine if Japan or Russia were to suddenly claim ownership of the entire Pacific Ocean based on the fact that the ocean floor looks similar to the continental shelf under their land thousands of miles away. This claim is similar to that. It only seems less intrusive because it is located further north than most people think about, but it is just as remarkable a claim nonetheless.

Canada's Foreign Minister, Peter Mackay , said, "This is posturing. This is the true north strong and free, and they're fooling themselves if they think dropping a flag on the ocean floor is going to change anything. There is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We've made that very clear. We've established - a long time ago - that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century."

Canada has started building a new fleet of six Arctic military icebreaker ships, to enhance its current fleet, and building a new deepwater port in Nunavut on one of the islands at the Eastern end of the NP, and is also adding more military forces to the Canadian bases there and in other parts of the north to be more able to defend it's arctic sovereignty when called upon. However, it's a big piece of land and water and they will be hard-pressed to protect against all the usurpers who want to take it away from them. Canada has a small population to defend its land.

The debates heat up as the global climate does.


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