Canada and Russia battle for the Arctic

A hot fight over one of the coldest places on earth

Allan White/Getty Images

It’s a hot fight over one of the coldest places on earth. Just in time for Christmas, Canada announced its intention to lay claim to the North Pole, some 800 km north of Alert, Nunavut, the country’s—and the world’s—northernmost settlement. However, in this case it’s not the sheet of sea ice that’s important, rather what might lie four kilometres below. By some estimates, the high Arctic is home to 15 per cent of the globe’s undiscovered oil and as much as 30 per cent of its untapped natural gas. And the scramble for title to those undersea riches has placed Canada on a collision course with the United States, Denmark, Norway and, most especially, Russia.

The government of Vladimir Putin submitted its initial claim to the North Pole—and 740,000 sq. km of surrounding territory—to the United Nations in 2001. Then, in 2007, two Russian mini-subs dived to the sea floor and planted their red, white and blue flag.

International law only allows countries to extend their territory 200 km offshore. So the competing claims for the far North are based on some creative interpretations of where the land masses actually end. All involved nations are arguing that undersea mountain ranges that criss-cross the floor of the Arctic Ocean are extensions of their own continental shelves. And it will be up to the UN to adjudicate their maps and scientific claims, and then bring them to the table for what promises to be many rounds of contentious bargaining.

In the meantime, Canada’s surprise move has already provoked a sharp response from the Russians. Putin has vowed to beef up his country’s military presence in the disputed region by reopening several shuttered Soviet-era military bases and commissioning new nuclear subs and patrol aircraft. Now the pressure will be on Canada to show its sovereignty. Get ready for the new cold war.

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