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Redefining Dispute: Collaboration in the Arctic

By Beth Brown

Dispute typically corresponds with discord, civil argument, and difference of opinion. In the Arctic, dispute corresponds with collaboration and compromise.

This hasn’t always been the case. Foreign policy in the north has seen a gradual transition over the last half dozen decades, from Cold War-induced apprehension to a continuing trend of circumpolar cooperation. The quickly approaching Paris climate change conference will hopefully further this trend, offering Arctic nations a platform to collaborate on stewardship of their vulnerable northern environment, and implore southern states to monitor carbon emissions and air-carried toxins.

Current circumpolar disputes are largely related to territory and climate. But, since national jurisdictions hold less weight in international territorial disputes, Arctic nations are increasingly looking to international regulatory bodies to reach consensus and protect their own interests. On the side of environmental dispute, we see this in the upcoming implementation of the Polar Code by the International Maritime Organization.

In Canada, the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act established by the Liberal government in 1970 is a primary piece of policy for regulating maritime contaminants, and thus is a key element of climate protection. The act applies to ships operating in northern Canadian waters, enforcing restrictions on emissions, waste management, and handling of ballast water. But the territorial dispute between Canada and the United States on the classification of the Northwest Passage weakens the authority of this act. Should the Northwest Passage be classified as an international strait, as the U.S. claims, instead of as internal waters, as Canada claims, vessels traversing the network of waterways needn’t adhere to the act’s limitations. Regardless of opinion on the nature of the Northwest Passage, some regulatory body is essential to protecting its ecology. This issue becomes particularly critical as sea ice continues to deplete and the passage becomes a viable option for commercial shipping.

Critiques of the Polar Code claim it has crucial gaps or isn’t stringent enough. Still, the interconnected ecology of Arctic countries benefits from a holistic lens, so an international regulatory body on climate stewardship is inherently more logical than puzzle piecing climate policy from individual nations.  

Article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) also supports the enforcement of domestic regulation to protect the environment. Colloquially known as the Arctic exception, the clause allows northern nations to regulate activity within their Exclusive Economic Zone when in the interest of environment.

The securing of national territorial claims via international bodies is seen in the ratification of UNCLOS and application by coastal nations to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLSC). Russia, Canada, and Denmark have competing claims for the extension of their continental shelves, which intersect at Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range dividing the Arctic Ocean into two basins.  

The potential for untapped hydrocarbon resources makes the area commercially attractive. A 2008 U.S. geological survey estimates that the Arctic is home to 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. Usually, economic success and military capability put countries in a position of power or influence over territory. In the Arctic, adherence to UNCLOS and the CLSC has made geography an equally influential factor. Whichever country can prove its shelf slopes the farthest will have the most access to this surplus of resources.

Following ratification of UNCLOS, countries have ten years to prepare an application for submission to the CLSC. This seems like a long time, but hydrographic and bathymetric surveying is slow going in the Arctic. There are only eight to ten weeks of summer season for sonar mapping of the seabed, and even if you have an icebreaker strong enough to survey all winter, these ships only move a few knots at a time and their fuel bills border on absurdity. Countries need to collect the data to complete an application for continental shelf extension. Even though their claims oppose each other, Canada and Denmark have collaborated on Arctic seabed surveying, for the sake of efficiency. Despite ratifying UNCLOS in 2003, Canada has still only submitted a partial application, covering just the Atlantic Ocean. Russia submitted an application in 2002, but its application was returned with a request for additional research. Russia resubmitted its claim this summer.

Even when a conclusion cannot be reached, many Arctic disputes are at least congenial. The best example of this is Hans Island, an isle in the Kennedy Channel between Ellesmere Island and Greenland measuring 1.3 square kilometers, long disputed between Canada and Denmark. While a stalemate continues on state ownership of the tiny piece of land, patrolling military personnel are rumored to plant bottles of booze native to their nation to be enjoyed by the other side. Granted, a shot of schnapps or Canadian Club is sure to boost morale on an isolated Arctic island.

Disputes can still harm collaboration, though. Canada and the U.S. have a history of cooperation on continental security in the Arctic. Their disputes over classification of the Northwest Passage, as well as the 21,000 square kilometer territorial dispute in the Beaufort Sea, come off a little like fighting with your best friend in front of the other kids on the playground.

Resolution is of course possible, as proven by Russia and Norway in 2010 when the two countries finally reconciled their 40-year dispute over a 175,000 square kilometer zone in the Barents Sea. They, brilliantly, divided the space in half and divided all the petroleum.

In a region where permafrost degradation means the ground is melting beneath infrastructure, where ecosystems are threatened by increasing foreign traffic, and where chemical toxins are being introduced into hunting stock and water supplies, pollution and climate concerns bear equal weight for Arctic states as territorial disputes. Collaboration will be increasingly key to the national interests of polar countries as they search for a means to combat growing environmental concerns, while also discovering a way to ethically access the wealth of untapped Arctic resources. The constructive conversation resulting from this circumpolar cooperation brings a whole new connotation to dispute.




Beth Brown is a Master of Journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She was recently employed by a newspaper for the Canadian Department of National Defence and is conducting graduate research on shipping and sovereignty in Canada's North.

[Photo by Beth Brown]


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