Barentsburg, Svalbard

Geopolitics of the Arctic

In March 2017 NASA measured the arctic sea ice cap at an all-time low for the time of the year. Ice caps grow and shrink on a natural annual cycle and March is when the cap reaches its wintertime maximum extent. Compared to the average wintertime maximum extent since 1981 the ice cap has shrunk over 1.22 million sq km — more than the whole country of South Africa.

However, melting ice means clearer seas and new shipping routes. Ships from northern Europe to eastern Asia could be reduced by 1000 nautical miles (1NM = 1.852km). Shipping through the arctic saves a lot of distance, but not necessarily money. Russia imposes tariffs for routes through its waters, whereas Canada charges nothing. Canadian waters are much more difficult to navigate, however, and so almost all arctic shipping routes go through Russia’s waters and pay the Russian tariff.

According to scientists, land under the Arctic sea could contain 10 billion tonnes of gas and oil. Whoever owns this land would have full rights to all resources.

Continental shelf claims
A map showing the EEZs and continental shelf claims in the Arctic. From IBRU at Durham University (

Given the presence of critical shipping routes and abundance of natural resources, it should come as no surprise that geopolitical tensions are rising over the sovereignty of the Arctic sea. Current UN maritime law means that countries have a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) beyond its coast. A country’s EEZ can be extended, however, if a country can prove where its continental shelf lies.

A continental shelf is an extension of a country’s landmass underwater, and submissions to the UN are considered by scientists, not politicians, to decide if the claim is valid or not. Several countries have researched and continue to research continental shelfs. Canada and Norway have submitted claims, but Denmark (who owns the territory of Greenland) is the only country to have an extended EEZ on the basis of continental shelf awarded.

Russia, however, are the most proactive on extending their EEZ. In 2007 two Russian minisubmarines placed the flag of Russia at the North Pole. Russia also funds a small town on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in an effort to claim oil if it is discovered off the coast of Svalbard. Moreover, military bases have been renovated and rebuilt along the north Russia coast. Denmark has submitted a further claim with a large section overlapping Russian-claimed territory, including the North Pole.

Barentsburg, Svalbard
The town of Barentsburg on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is almost entirely Russian. It even features a bust of Vladimir Lenin.

The debates surrounding who has rightful claims to the Arctic Sea will continue over the next years for sure, but with such high stakes no country will concede easily.

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