Who Owns the Arctic?

It depends on the shape of the ocean floor.

Who owns the Arctic?

The New York Times reported Friday that the U.S. Coast Guard is planning to establish its first Arctic base at an outpost in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point on the U.S. mainland. The announcement comes less than three months after a spat between Canada and Russia over control of Arctic waters. Norway, Iceland, and Denmark (through its province, Greenland) also voice claims on parts of the Arctic Ocean, particularly as thawing ice opens up previously inaccessible waterways and natural resources. So, who owns the Arctic?

No one owns the North Pole, but every country with a border on the Arctic Ocean claims some of its waters. Because the North Pole is covered by an ice shelf and isn’t actually land, it is governed by the Law of the Sea, a 1982 U.N. treaty signed by more than 150 countries. The agreement gives each nation control of the area up to 200 nautical miles (230 miles) off its coast, so everyone with so much as a shoreline in the Arctic gets some Arctic waters and whatever natural resources might lie beneath them.

This seemingly straightforward rule is complicated by another regulation that allows countries to extend their waters to up to 350 nautical miles (403 miles) if they can prove their underwater continental shelf extends beyond the normal 200-mile boundary.In other words, we don’t fully know who owns the Arctic until we know the shape of the underlying seabed.

Mapping the bottom of the ocean is no easy thing, particularly when the ocean is covered with ice. When Russia planted a flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean this past August, the country’s aim was to show that a long ridge extends the Siberian continental shelf past Russia’s 200-mile line, giving Moscow the rights to waters nearly all the way up to the North Pole. To do this, a nuclear-powered Russian ice-breaking vessel had to carve its way through the Arctic ice, and then dispatch two miniature research submarines down to the bottom of the ocean.

Of course, countries can’t make formal claims just by planting a flag—they have to present scientific evidence demonstrating the size of their continental shelf to a U.N. panel. Russia had appealed for more territory back in 2001, but the panel rejected the claim and requested more evidence. Part of the mission of the flag-planting Russian mini-subs was to gather data for a new petition.

What happens when countries’ waters overlap? If the United Nations concludes that the lay of the seabed gives two countries rights to the same area, they can settle their boundary dispute independently or through a different U.N. tribunal. So far, there haven’t been any disputes like this in the Arctic, but researchers have yet to map the entire Arctic seabed. What’s known of the topography suggests that Canadian waters may end up intersecting with those of Russia and Greenland.

Right now, the United States is the odd man out, legally, because it’s the only country with Arctic interests that hasn’t signed onto the Law of the Sea. (President Reagan refused the treaty because he thought it would hamper U.S. underwater mining.) The fact that America isn’t a member means it has to resolve any dispute independently.

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Explainer thanks Scott G. Borgerson of the Council on Foreign Relations.