Modern day global warming in the North Pole has made possible what explorers have dreamed about for centuries. Because of shifting ice sheets the Northwest Passage in the arctic is now open. This route could become navigable to commercial traffic within eight years, dramatically cutting the length of a journey from Europe to Asia. Also, the Arctic is potentially home to a quarter of the world's untapped energy reserves. An open passage would make those reserves significantly more accessible. This will be a growing international security issue.
In 1997, Russia, Norway, Canada, the United States (through Alaska) and Denmark (through Greenland) ratified the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea, which limits the five nations on the Arctic Ocean sole exploitation rights over all natural resources within a 200-nautical mile (370km) zone extending from their coastlines. The real conflict will arise in 2010 because of a clause stating that the five nations are allowed to file claims to a UN commission for greater territory, if they can prove that their continental shelves are geographically linked to the Arctic seabed. All these countries are now positioning themselves in advance of 2010.
The Russian government has long believed that it owns the northern territories - it was marked as such on Soviet maps dating from the 1920s. Russian claims that an underwater chain of mountains called the Lomonosov Shelf is an extension of Siberia's continental shelf. Following an expedition to the North Pole this summer by a Russian submarine that planted a flag beneath the North Pole, Russian officials stated that the sea floor there is a definitively continuation of Russia's landmass. The underwater Lomonosov Shelf was shown to be a "structural extension of the Siberian continental platform," said Viktor Poselov, deputy director of Russia's institute of maritime geological research.
At their recent leadership summit, President George W. Bush accepted Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic Islands but not over the Northwest Passage waterway. Bush said Canada and the U.S. must agree to disagree on the status of the Northwest Passage, which the U.S. considers an international waterway.
"We'll manage the differences, because there are differences on the Northwest Passage," Bush said. "We believe it's an international passage. Having said that, the United States does not question Canada's sovereignty over its Arctic islands." Prime Minister Steve Harper portrayed Canada's differences with the U.S. as manageable. Harper said the disagreement with the U.S. would not stop his government from advancing plans to strengthen Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. Canada recently announced that it would build a new deep-sea port and military training facility near the Northwest Passage.
Denmark and Norway are also in the news over this issue. As the decade draws to a close, stay tuned for the fireworks over the cold Artic waters.
Source: Security International's North American Correspondent
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