Canada is planning to make a claim to the geographic North Pole. Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Canadian scientists to change a submission to the UN to that effect. Rightly so, say some. But according to others, a Canadian claim to the North Pole is doomed to fail.

By Frank Kuin

In practical terms, there’s no use to the geographic North Pole. It is an extremely inhospitable point on the globe where it is pitch dark three months of the year. The Arctic Ocean is 3.6 kilometers deep and covered with sea ice, and the nearest port is thousands of kilometers away. Nobody is going to undertake any activity on the spot anytime soon.

Canada maakt aanspraak op de geografische Noordpool.

Canada plans to make a claim to the geographic North Pole.

Still, tensions among large Arctic Nations about sovereignty over the North Pole have increased this week, following a claim to the pole by Canada. Or rather, an announcement by Canada that it wants to lay claim to the seabed at the geographic North Pole in the future, when it can support such a claim with scientific evidence.

“We have asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that our submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada’s claim to the North Pole,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Russia, which planted a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007, was not impressed. Days after Baird’s announcement, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian army to strengthen its presence in the Arctic.

Why the skirmish over the North Pole? The Arctic countries (Canada, Russia, the United States, Denmark and Norway) are all vying to increase their influence in the Arctic region, which is becoming more accessible because of global warming. According to estimates, the Arctic contains 30 per cent of undiscovered oil and gas reserves on earth. Also, Arctic shipping is set to rise significantly because of the dramatic melt of sea ice in the region.

Spheres of influence in the Arctic Ocean are determined through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. Under that treaty, countries can claim sections of the seabed if they can prove that geographic structures are an extension of their continental shelf. In that zone, a country gets exclusive rights to the resources under the ocean floor.

“Harper does not want to be the prime minister who gives up the North Pole”

Canada has been conducting extensive research missions in the Arctic Ocean for 10 years to support territorial claims in a report that was submitted to the UN this week – an intensive process that has cost $200 million. The conclusion, reached by the scientists: Canada can claim at least 1.2 million square meters of Arctic seabed – but the area outlined in their report did not include the geographic North Pole.

That was a mistake in the view of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. His government presents itself as a strong defender of Canadian interests in the Arctic. Harper has ordered the scientists back to the drawing board, to adjust the submission so that the geographic North Pole is included in the Canadian claim. Possibly, there will be further research missions to map the Arctic seabed.

Harper’s assertive position is warranted, says Rob Huebert, Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “I have never been able to understand why our research ships stopped at the North Pole,” he says. “Did the scientists think that the North Pole was a logical place to stop? There is no obvious reason. It would have been better if this had been caught earlier, but I’m still glad to see the government taking the position to ensure maximize its submission.”

But not everyone agrees. According to Michael Byers, Professor of Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, a Canadian claim to the North Pole is doomed to fail. The pole is located on the Greenland side of the so-called Lomonosov Ridge, a crucial underwater mountain range that runs over the top of the earth. Denmark is therefore in the strongest position for a claim. The country, which has worked closely with Canada on Arctic research missions, still has to submit its report to the UN.

Rusland plaatste in 2007 een vlag op de zeebodem aan de Noordpool.

Russia placed a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole in 2007.

According to Byers, Harper’s claim is a “publicity stunt” for domestic consumption. “He does not want to be the prime minister who gives up the North Pole,” says Byers. “All he has done is postpone the inevitable: ultimately the North Pole will not be within Canada’s seabed rights.” By imposing his own preferences, Harper is undermining the scientific process to determine maritime borders, a mechanism that is supported by all Arctic nations, Byers argues. “You cannot change the science.”

It will take years before it is determined which country can count the geographic North Pole within its area of the seabed. After Canada and Denmark, Russia still has to submit its Arctic claims to the UN, after an earlier submission in 2000 was rejected. That submission included the North Pole. After evaluation of the reports by a UN commission, Arctic countries will have to negotiate over disputed areas, possibly followed by arbitration.

The experts agree on one thing, however: the question in whose area the geographic North Pole lies is of no practical significance, it only has symbolic value. “Outside of issues like the origin of Santa Claus, the North Pole itself is frankly not important”, says Huebert. “The point is to get the maximum amount of territory that you are entitled to, because of the oil and gas reserves in the seabed.”

This post is also available in: Dutch

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