What we commonly think of as “the Arctic” actually consists of legally distinct constituent parts. These include all the land, bodies of water (both internal and international), and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) within the Arctic Circle, an area that starts at a latitude of about 66°33’49.0” north of the Equator.
Eight of the world’s countries – Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States (through Alaska) – possess land in the Arctic. Five also possess territorial seas extending 12 nautical miles north of their coastlines (note: countries have full sovereignty over their territorial seas) and EEZs stretching 200 nautical miles beyond the limits of their territorial seas. Beyond these zones, the waters of the Arctic Ocean belong to the international community, just like the North Pole.
Ownership of the Arctic’s constituent parts carries immense economic opportunities, because the region is home to enormous reserves of oil and natural gas. For this reason, Arctic states have eagerly contended for greater control over the region starting from the late 20th century.
Rules on ownership in the Arctic are stipulated by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international legal framework that regulates marine and maritime activities across the world. Once a country ratifies the UNCLOS, it has ten years to lay claim to an extended continental shelf beyond its EEZ, something that has previously been done by Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia. Ownership of the Arctic’s constituent parts has, therefore, seemed straightforward since UNCLOS came into force in 1994 with modifications.
Even so, there are four ongoing territorial disputes in the Arctic: the Northwest Passage (disputed since 1969), Beaufort Sea (disputed since 2004), Lomonosov Ridge (disputed since 2014), and Hans Island (disputed since 1973 and recently resolved).
Having titillated the imaginations of countless explorers seeking to establish a new trade route to Asia and motivated European exploration of the Americas for centuries before its discovery, the Northwest Passage is currently the subject of a territorial dispute between the United States and Canada. The passage runs through Canadian waters, which Canada wishes to regulate for environmental reasons, including by deciding which vessels can enter. But the United States rejects this approach because the passage itself belongs to the international community. Canada and the United States have also been involved in a territorial dispute over the Beaufort Sea since 2004, when the United States leased plots of the sea bed for resource exploitation. Though the two sides launched negotiations on this matter in 2011, the dispute has yet to be resolved.
The resource-rich, 1,800-kilometre Lomonosov Ridge is highly disputed by Canada, Denmark, and Russia, all of whom claim it as an extension of their respective continental ridges.
The 1.3-kilometre-wide Hans Island is equidistant between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and the Danish territory of Greenland. Both sides expressed a willingness to divide the island in half in April 2012, and they have recently signed an agreement settling this dispute.
Global warming and ensuing structural changes in the Arctic are only set to muddy the waters further and leave Arctic states in more territorial disputes that UNCLOS fails to settle, as countries race to seize the economic opportunities offered by shrinking ice caps: greater access to sea beds for extraction of resources and greater access to sea routes (the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route) for trade.