16: Who owns the North Pole?

Hello! This week’s post is a bit of an insight into the politics of the north, focusing on the question who owns the North Pole? I’ll say in advance, there is a lot more political complexity to this than I understand. This plog is simply a little overview of how people own bits of water, and how sometimes they want to own other extra bits of water with cool names like ‘The North Pole’. The plog will involve a little bit of maritime law, a potential reason why Trump would want to buy Greenland and a sneaky submarine. Curious? Read on!

Virtual Travel: Cape Town to the North Pole | Abagond
As the sea ice where the North Pole sits shifts each year, the chances are that any pictures of a literal pole saying ‘North Pole’ on it is actually a little out of place

Who owns land and sea?

Whilst we think of countries and nations as lands, they also own a little bit of water too. A nation has complete ownership of it’s internal waters, this being lakes and rivers, and in the case of large archipelagos like Indonesia it also includes all the water between the islands. Then you have the territorial sea, which is anything 12 nautical miles (nm) off the coast of the… well coast or wherever is regarded as the edge of your national zone if you’re a group of islands like Indonesia. There are some special rules too when your 12 miles crosses with the next door country’s 12 miles, but all we need to focus on is basically 12 nm from a nations coast is still it’s property. Up to a maximum of 200 nm from the coast is the exclusive economic zone. You can do what you want with the resources there like fishing, mining and oil exploration, but you can’t stop anyone else sailing in or just generally hanging around those waters.

In the north of many countries like Canada and Russia, winter is so cold that much of the sea freezes over into ice. This might be a seasonal thing, happening only in winter, or might even be quite permanent. In many areas sea ice is so thick and constant that people move across it and even live on it. This has led some people to question whether sea ice should sometimes be counted as land too, which would not only give more ‘land’ to the country but also extend their sea territories further out.

White shows the extent of water that sea ice can cover in winter (Picture: Canadian Geographic)

The North Pole

The North Pole is actually in an area that is completely covered in water with no land. It is however, covered in both seasonal and more permanent sea ice, which is why there have been many expeditions there on foot, by car and by sled. As the North Pole isn’t land, and so is not a country or territory in its own right, the waters surrounding it have the same rules as other waters. Nations get claim on resources 200 nm from their coast, and the rest is international waters- the high seas! As the North Pole is more than 200 nm from land anyone owns, the question is answered, no one owns it! Well, yes but no. Technically this is the case, and it does say in international law that no one can own the North Pole but that hasn’t stopped some people trying to own it…

Some northern countries have said that they actually own more bits of sea than currently recognised. For example the Russians state that an underwater ridge is connected to Russia, so is an extension of the country and thus they own everything within the economic zone of the ridge (which include the Pole). Canada and Denmark also put forward a claim to ownership of extra waters because of an underwater continental shelf and guess what, this also included getting to own the North Pole! Denmark did this through their jurisdiction over Greenland, meaning whoever ‘owns’ Greenland might have a claim to Arctic Waters…

Map of all the various claims by everyone and anyone in the North Pole area. Map produced by Durham University IBRU.

Why does everyone want it?

Whether talking about claimed economic zones of ocean off the coast of land-land or ice-land, why does anyone care? Is an extra bit of water really that important to a nation? Well, often yes, and there’s two reasons why: money and looking cool.

Let’s start with money. Getting to claim rights over a larger bit of ocean means access to more resources. This means more fishing, and mining, but crucially it means access to massive untapped oil reserves (potentially 22% of the worlds untapped oil) which could mean big money for the country who has ownership of it. As oil is a finite resource, it’s value will go up when there is less in the places we are currently digging for it, so though it might make some money now, it will probably be worth lots more in the future when it is ‘rarer’.

Now for point number two- coolness. It would be very cool to say that you owned the North Pole, and considering how much effort countries have put into being the FIRST into space and such like, it’s not beyond them to fight for cool titles. That being said, there are almost definitely many intricate political reasons which I have totally missed, including strategic military positioning and control of future trade routes, but as I know next to nothing about that complex world I won’t pretend that I do on here…

Picture taken from a Russian submarine. Read on for explanation

Weren’t you going to talk about a submarine?

So who owns the North Pole? The U.S.A!! Wait what….? There is actually a town in Alaska called North Pole so that’s technically the property of the U.S. As for the North Pole however, according to our current laws and maritime rules, no one owns it. That hasn’t stopped countries from trying though, and some have even made bold statements of ownership. For example in 2007 a Russian research submarine went to the waters at the North Pole to gather data to support that it is part of the Russia continental underwater land shelf, to help their claim case. Whilst there the Russians happened to stick a Russian flag to the seabed. As it’s a little difficult to get to, and apparently attached quite well, it should still be there today! However, I don’t think it’s enough to stake an official claim on the pole…

For more info:

A more detailed version of the claims map: https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ibru/resources/Arcticmap2019/IBRUArcticmapJune2019.pdf

Another article discussing Arctic water claims and the lure of oil: https://www.forbes.com/sites/brighammccown/2014/12/22/who-really-owns-the-north-pole/#14669d1369b3

If you’re feeling very eager, here’s the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which lays out the rules of what belongs to who in terms of water: https://www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/UNCLOS-TOC.htm

Music: kongano.com

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