Seemingly endless expanses of icy tundra, punctuated only by the occasion polar bear: the arctic on first glance doesn't seem worth fighting over. But it has been the centre of a dispute between the five nations that border it for the last sixty years. Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark and the US all make claims to the arctic waters, and more importantly, what lies beneath them.
It is thought that up to 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 per cent of the world's undiscovered gas resources could lie in the arctic region, and as receding ice caps make accessing this inhospitable region easier, the race to establish ownership has heated up.
Russia and Norway
In 2010, Russia and Norway settled their dispute in the Barents Sea, and the Norway has used the occasion to encourage the other arctic nations to make similar progress. In response to signing the Barents Sea Pact, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said "It sends an important signal to the rest of the world - the Arctic is a peaceful region where any issues that arise are resolved in accordance with international law."
Russia and Norway have been in the process of delimiting their maritime boundary since 1957, when a short section of the maritime boundary, from the land boundary terminus through the confines of Varangerfjord, was designated. The boundary was extended through Varangerfjord in 2007, but it was only in 2010 that the lengthy section through the Barents Sea and into the Arctic Ocean was determined.
Norway had argued for a median line, which would put the boundary exactly equidistant from each country's coast, which Russia (and previously the Soviet Union) advocated extending the boundary north along the 32° 4' 35"E meridian. The boundary agreed last week is a compromise between the two lines.
Russia and Canada
While Russia has solved one of its disputes, its problem with Canada continues. This dispute centres on the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,200mile underwater mountain range running along the floor of the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Canada's Ellesmere Island. Russia first laid claim to the ridge in 2001, arguing that as it is part of Siberia's shelf, Russia was entitled to sole rights to the ridge and the nearby seabed. The UN rejected this claim, saying more evidence was needed. Russia is expected to resubmit in 2011-12, with Canada and Denmark expected to offer evidence for their claims to the region in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Denmark and Canada
Canada also has a stalled dispute with Denmark over Hans Island, a tiny barren knoll in the middle of the Nares Strait, which divides Ellesmere Island and Denmark's Greenland Territory. The maritime boundary in the area was delimited in a 1973 treaty, which plotted 127 points through the strait. The island, however, lies in between two points, and so has remained in dispute. At the heart of the dispute is shipping rights, and it seems that Canada is worried that giving in on Hans Island will compromise its exclusive claims to the Northwest Passage. With the exception of displays of power – visits to the island by prominent politicians, planting of flags, and the holding of army exercises – little has been done to resolve the dispute.
Canada and the US
More progress has been made on Canada's dispute with the US over the Beaufort Sea. High-level discussions have occurred over the summer in 2010, and for the third year in a row, researchers from both countries worked in the region mapping the sea floor. The dispute emerged in the 1970s, over a triangle-shaped 21,500sq km section of the Beaufort Sea close to the Yukon-Alaska shore, but the joint Canada-US seabed surveys in 2008 and 2009 showed each country's claims could extend much farther toward the North Pole than previously imagined.
Canada envisions a boundary that is an extension of the arrow-straight land border between the Yukon and Alaska, whic follows the 141 meridian. The US, by contrast, argues for a line based on 'equidistance'. What is interesting is that while each country's approach would benefit them in the restricted Beaufort Sea area, when the now accessible Outer Beaufort is considered, each of their approaches actually works against them.
A separate, but related concern is the issue of control over the Northwest Passage, which, due to retreating polar ice caps, is increasingly being seen as a shipping shortcut between Asia and Europe. Ottawa says that the Northwest Passage is Canadian sovereign water, but Washington and several other nations regard it as an international passage.
Meanwhile, the EU recently angered the Arctic Council, a group of arctic nations charged with protecting the environment, when EU Vice-President Diana Wallis said that, in allowing deepwater oil exploration in the region, they were failing to protect the fragile environment.
None of these disputes are likely to result in military conflict, but they have certainly hampered relations in recent years. As nations become increasingly eager to and able to exploit the natural resources in the region, it seem many of them will gradually edge towards resolution.