Geopolitics: Denmark sets course for North Pole

7 August 2012
Politiken Copenhagen

The icebreaker Oden, which the Danish expedition is using to travel to the Arctic
The icebreaker Oden, which the Danish expedition is using to travel to the Arctic

En route to the Arctic to affirm sovereignty over an area of ocean floor and possible oil reserves, the Danish expedition to the North Pole will likely prompt opposition from both the Russian government and environmentalists, reports Politiken.

A few days ago, a team of approximately 20 Danish researchers left Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, on their way to the North Pole on board the Swedish icebreaker Oden. The goal of the expedition is to prove that the 155,000 square kilometres of seabed that lie beneath the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean – and in particular the North Pole – form part of the Greenland continental shelf, and should therefore be considered part of the Danish Realm, which includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands along with Denmark.

The expedition has only six weeks to complete its mission and the task faced by the researchers will naturally be made more difficult by the ice at the Pole.

They have to gather bathymetric data on the Lomonosov Ridge and on the layers of sediment in the Amundsen Basin to the east of the North Pole. In 2014, this data will be essential if the Danish Realm is to successfully submit a claim to the UN for a substantial area of seabed, which extends to the north beyond the 200 nautical mile limit off Greenland to the North Pole.

The launch of the expedition has raised three questions: Will there be a conflict between Denmark and Russia, because Russia is also claiming certain parts of this territory? What are the motives for the Danish claim? And will Denmark preserve the North Pole if it becomes Danish?

Conflicting claims

Let’s start with Russia. The agreement that allows nations to extend their territory beyond 200 nautical miles is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Russia submitted provisional claims on the basis of this agreement for areas of the Arctic Ocean in 2001, and it is clear that these claims will be in contradiction to those that are likely to be pursued by the Danish Realm.

There is also some uncertainty about the peaceful nature of Moscow’s intentions, especially following a 2007 incident when Russian submarines planted a flag on the seabed under the North Pole. However, the risks of a conflict over the Pole remain marginal.

Denmark, Russia and other states bordering on the Arctic have pledged to respect the rules with regard to the definition of borders laid out in UNCLOS, and Russia can only benefit from a peaceful resolution of any disputes. With its 20,000-kilometre long Siberian coast, it can count on acquiring the rights to vast tracts of Arctic Ocean seabed, so it is unlikely that the Federation will jeopardise this potential benefit by stirring up trouble over the more modest territory claimed by Denmark.

Perhaps more importantly, the probability of discovering oil close to the North Pole is relatively low. Researchers do not know a great deal about the geology of the area, but they do know enough to conclude that the quest for commercially viable oil reserves should probably focus on other areas of the Arctic.

Defining maritime borders

At the same time, however, it is hard to see how Russia and Denmark can come to a definitive agreement on the location of their maritime borders if both countries are claiming the same area of seabed. For many Russian diplomats, a sustainable solution will necessarily require a dialogue with other nations bordering the Arctic – ie the United States.

We also do not know if nationalist forces in Russia will accept that Denmark/Greenland should be recognised as the exclusive administrator of the North Pole. There is nowhere in Siberia that is as close to the North Pole as the northern tip of Greenland, but the Russians still believe that they have as much of a claim to the North Pole as we do.

Finally, Denmark and Greenland will have to agree on a strategy for border negotiation. Officially, Denmark has responsibility for the foreign policy of the realm. However, the manner in which power is divided is evolving to reflect Greenland’s growing international presence – the island has benefited from increased autonomy since 2009.

The question of the protection of the region is also an issue. For decades, the South Pole and all of Antarctica have been protected by the Antarctic Treaty which bans all military activity along with the commercial exploitation of the region’s oil, minerals and fauna. Greenpeace and other environmental groups believe that the centre of the Arctic Ocean, which as yet does not belong to anyone, should be subject to similar conservation measures.

If such a treaty were to be established, Denmark, Russia and Canada, which all lay claim to parts of this territory, would have to give up on the submissions filed with the UN. Greenpeace has launched a "Save the Arctic" campaign, which will culminate with the planting of a flag at the North Pole in 2013.

Uninhabited territory

For years, Denmark opposed the idea of a conservation treaty to protect the Arctic like the one that is in force for the Antarctic, arguing that the Arctic had four million inhabitants whereas the Antarctic had none, and that the Danish Realm’s right to lay claim to an area of the seabed was justified by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

However, in 2011 when Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist, made it known that he wanted the deep sea region to benefit from international protection, Denmark changed its tune.

In August 2011, the former minister of foreign affairs, Lene Espersen (Conservative People’s Party) gave her support to plan to create a “nature reserve”. Thereafter, her successor, Villy Søvndal (Socialist Party) spoke of a “heritage area”.

As it stands, it is hard to see what the Danish government really wants; to defend the principle of international protection for a large area of seabed in the Arctic Ocean, which would automatically result in a ban on industrial fishing, commercial shipping routes and the extraction of oil and minerals? Or is the country more in favour of the token protection of a limited area of the icecap in the region of the North Pole?

While the United Nations is in the process of evaluating the official claims of various parties, the Danish government will likely avoid drawing attention to this issue – a tactic that will also allow its team of researchers time to present the results of their expedition.

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