Canada: Checkmate

After more than a decade of research, Canada took a significant step in defining its territorial map and further staking its claim in the Arctic, when it filed a submission with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in May 2019.

The move was touted by the Canadian government as a critical step in asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, and “serving the interests” of all people, including Indigenous groups. The 2,100-page document submitted by Canada contains research based on 17 expeditions to the Arctic, in which data was collected and interpreted by various scientists who believe there could be huge oil, natural gas and mineral reserves under the water. Additionally, the Canadian government collaborated with Denmark, Sweden, and the United States in the form of joint surveys and other scientific work. 

If the submission is approved, Canada will enjoy exclusive rights to resources underneath this water. However, Denmark also filed its North Pole suit back in 2014. And Russia has argued that the North Pole also falls under their continental shelf delimitation. Russia's claim has been under evaluation by the UN Commission since 2016. Thus, Denmark, Russia, and Canada have all argued that the North Pole should be under their jurisdiction. Now this has led to a lot of technical debate about who owns what, geographically speaking. Since the Arctic region is rich in resources, everyone wants to claim as much as possible. With lucrative petroleum and natural gas reserves, countries are rushing to seize some lucrative oil and gas rights. 

North Pole Claims

UNCLOS did not affect Arctic relations until climate change began in earnest because the majority of exclusive economic zones provided within it were practically inaccessible. However, as the ice has melted, the tenants of the Convention have failed to alleviate emerging territorial concerns. As the waters warm, the Convention has been used as a tool to entrench territorial claims through UN appeals and report submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf UN Subcommittee (CLCS). In short, the interested parties are attempting to exploit the convention as a way to extend legitimate Arctic claims beyond the 200 nautical mile mark, as in Norway’s Submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). 

While Norway’s submission is based on independent negotiations with other Arctic states to extend beyond the 200 nautical mile mark, the most recent Canadian, Russian, and Danish submissions to the CLCS have been partial submissions, allowing states to make arguments for territorial extensions in the Arctic beyond the CLCS time limit of ten years following ratification of UNCLOS. This, coupled with the geography of the Arctic Ocean, makes Arctic relations more difficult as it pushes territorial disputes into the realm of global bureaucracy under a convention poorly designed for use at the top of the world.

While most routes pass through either Canadian or Russian territorial waters, the entrances to those routes can be militarily contested by Denmark, the United States, and Norway, regardless of which nation’s territorial claims include those waters. This in and of itself poses a problem, because some form of stability and control is needed to ensure shipping routes can be used. While it is unlikely for routes to be blockaded or military conflict to arise, the fact passage control could be contested by any of these nations forces them to develop Arctic-capable assets.

Russia's Claim

The new Russian claim adds two new areas and subtracts one from the original 2001 claim. In total, it adds about 103,000 square kilometres to what had been a claim of 1,325,000 square kilometres. The new Russian claim crosses into the Canadian and Danish sides of the North Pole for the first time. While this may have symbolic impact (especially for Canadians and Danes), it has no legal significance. In short, little is actually happening on the international seabed – in the Arctic or elsewhere – other than states using science to claim the limited economic rights that are reserved for them by international law. The Russian Federation is claiming a large extended continental shelf as far as the North Pole based on the Lomonosov Ridge and Mendeleyev Ridges within their Arctic sector. Moscow believes the eastern Lomonosov Ridge and the Mendeleyev Ridge are an extension of the Siberian continental shelf. The Russian claim does not cross the Russia-US Arctic sector demarcation line, nor does it extend into the Arctic sector of any other Arctic coastal state.

On December 20, 2001, Russia made an official submission into the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (article 76, paragraph 8). In the document it is proposed to establish the outer limits of the continental shelf of Russia beyond the 200-nautical-mile (370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone, but within the Russian Arctic sector. In 2002 the UN Commission neither rejected nor accepted the Russian proposal, recommending additional research.

Through this bid, Russia is claiming 1.2 million square kilometers (over 463,000 square miles) of Arctic sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles (about 650 kilometers) from the shore. In February 2016 additional data was submitted by Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergey Donskoy. After the expedition "Arktika 2007" Russian researchers collected new data reinforcing Russia's claim to part of the sea bottom beyond the 200-mile zone within its entire Arctic sector, the North Pole area included. On August 9, 2016 the UN CLCS started working on the issue.

Thus, in reality, Russia first made the claim for new land back in 2001, and this update only asks for an additional 103,000 square kilometres on top of that. Yes, this is the first time Russia's demands extend into land that Denmark and Canada have also submitted claims for, but that doesn't mean they're starting the next Cold War. In fact, the countries claiming ownership over the Arctic have all worked closely together scientifically to create these geographical maps in the first place

Denmark's Claim

2014 - the Kingdom of Denmark’s extended continental shelf submission covering an area of 895,000 square kilometres in the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland.

2017 - a new study appears in which the stone takes centre stage as support for the Kingdom of Denmark’s extended continental shelf claim. The Lomonosov Ridge runs through the centre of a large ocean area, in which Denmark has claimed the right to exploit resources at the seabed. Russia also has a claim to the ridge, and Canada is expected to make their own claim in the coming years. So geological studies near the North Pole have big geopolitical implications. This fight at the North Pole is fought by scientists who supply the supporting evidence for the Kingdom of Denmark’s claim.

An argument that Lomonosov Ridge has continental origin:

“A central part of our argument for the area being part of the Kingdom of Denmark continental shelf is that the area is geologically a part of Greenland. The stone is an important piece of evidence,”. “It’s the first time that the public can get an insight into how we argue that the Lomonosov Ridge has a continental origin,” says Knudsen, and adds “We can see that the rocks were formed by two continents colliding.” “In this regard it was important that we show that the Lomonosov Ridge is continental and not oceanic rock,” Rocks from the Arctic seabed supports this claim: The stone was dredged from the seabed, more than three kilometres beneath the ocean surface. It comes from the slopes of the Lomonosov Ridge—a large underwater ridge that crosses the Polar Ocean from northern Greenland to Russia. the brownish rock resting on the bookshelf is an important piece of evidence to represent the mountains at the bottom of the ice-cold, deep Arctic Ocean.

In the analysis of the stone the scientists first had to prove that the it originated from the Lomonosov ridge. That means they had to rule out the possibility that the stone had not been dropped into the area from above by melting icebergs—so-called “drop stones.” Icebergs are known to carry stones from land and drop them at sea, as the ice melts. Fortunately, the rocks forming the Lomonosov Ridge were covered by a 15 centimetre thick Iron-Manganese oxide crust that formed over the last eight million years. “We used Beryllium isotopes to find the age of this crust, which proves that the rock was been in place long before ice ages could have carried it there. It it’s like detective work, and we have a Sherlock Holmes-like approach, using a range of methods and evidence to calculate back in time and build up a picture of what happened at the ridge. In the new study, the scientists also analysed the mineral content of the stone. Their arrangement indicates the pressure and temperature that the rock was exposed too, suggesting that it was formed under the mountain folding processes that created the Lomonosov Ridge. Based on analysis of the content of Argon isotopes in the minerals we know were formed during the mountain building episode, we could date this event to have occurred 470 million years ago. The results clearly show, that the Lomonosov ridge has continental origin. Many other studies have reached the same conclusion. All of the samples are clearly continental and much older than the oceanic basin that formed on either side of the Lomonosov Ridge,” he says.

But establishing the ridge’s continental origins is not enough to guarantee the Kingdom of Denmark’s rights to exploit resources in the region. It also has to be establish that the ridge is both morphologically and geologically connected the North Greenland landmass. To demonstrate this, scientists have mapped the area with sonar and sound waves. Russia has included parts of the Lomonosov Ridge in their revised submission to the CLCS and Canada is expected to do so as well. When the CLCS has finalised their recommendation on the individual submissions there might be overlapping claims. This has to be resolved by the involved coastal states before a final delimitation of the extended continental shelf around the Lomonosov Ridge can take place, which could take some time yet.

Canada's Claim

2003 - Canada became party to the UNCLOS and embarked on a project to define the outer limits of its continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean.

2013 - Canada's claim to Arctic riches includes the North Pole

Baird and Leona Aglukkaq, who chairs the Arctic Council, made public Canada's claim to the extended continental shelf in the Arctic, in a press conference in the foyer of the House of Commons: 

We have asked our officials and scientists to do additional work and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada's claim to the North Pole. This submission includes claims to both the Atlantic and Arctic seabeds. There is no extended continental shelf Canada can claim in the Pacific Ocean. While the science on the Atlantic is complete, the government is only presenting "preliminary information" on its Arctic claim. The findings outline Canada's claim to the seabed and undersea bed beyond the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, which would extend Canada's ownership of natural resources in the area. 

"Fundamentally, we are drawing the last lines of Canada. We are defending our sovereignty," explained Aglukkaq. "The government’s objective has been to obtain the most expansive continental shelf for Canada." 

2019 - Canada submits its Arctic Ocean claim to the United Nations, a major step forward in ensuring Canada’s Arctic sovereignty

Canada is laying claim to 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed and subsoil in the Arctic Ocean—including the North Pole. The case for this claim is laid out in 2,100 data-packed pages, filed with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Thursday, May 23.

In a news release, Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, called the submission “a major step forward in ensuring Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.” Global Affairs Canada said it was “a critical step to fully define the map of Canada.” The submission is the first step in a process set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, generally referred to by its abbreviation, UNCLOS, to obtain international recognition of the ownership of the outer limits of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. Scientists believe there could be huge oil, natural gas and mineral reserves under these polar waters.

Determining the outer Arctic limits was not easy, notes the executive summary of the May 23 submission. Canada faced the challenge of collecting data “in areas that are ice-covered, difficult to access, and, in most instances, had not been previously surveyed,” it said. Work started in 2006 and finished in 2016, and “the windows of opportunity for data collection in the Arctic Ocean are short and difficult due to perennial sea ice cover, weather and reduced sunlight.” During that period, Canada collaborated on 17 expeditions with the United States, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. “Innovative use of technologies was also critical to enable collection of data in this harsh environment,” the summary said.

What the fuss is all about?

However, apart from economic considerations, increased access to the Arctic has also ushered in a new era of maritime security issues for Arctic nations. While most routes pass through either Canadian or Russian territorial waters, the entrances to those routes can be militarily contested by Denmark, the US, and Norway, regardless of which nation’s territorial claims include those waters. This in and of itself poses a problem, because some form of stability and control is needed to ensure shipping routes can be used. The mere fact that passage control could be contested by any of these nations forces them to develop Arctic-capable assets.

The continental shelf debate is a relatively new agenda item. Both the North Pole and much of the Arctic Ocean were long considered neutral territory. However, as climate change has caused ice to recede and opened up new economic opportunities in this region, a number of countries have made claims to territory in the north.

The Canadian government itself has said this may take up to 10 years to resolve the claims. Stakeholders suggest so called “race for the Arctic” will not become a hot conflict, given that all parties seem poised to accept the ruling of the UN, whenever it comes. Given that it took Norway and Russia over four decades to negotiate the Barents Sea delimitation, it appears that these discussions are just getting started.