If you don't believe that the Arctic ice cap is melting, ask the Russians about it.
In 2007, while many of us were busy arguing about whether or not climate change is real, a Russian mini-sub planted a titanium flag on the sea floor far beneath the floating ice lid, claiming the North Pole for the Motherland. Not surprisingly, that claim didn't go over well with the representatives of the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, all of whom also have strong territorial interests—and military presences—in the Arctic.
Until recently, nobody seemed to care much about who owned what up there among the polar bears, but things have changed. This summer saw the second largest meltback of sea ice on record. What was once considered a useless, frozen wasteland is now a booming frontier, and national tempers are heating up along with the local climate.
One of the first signs of trouble was a spat between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island, a tiny bump of barren rock in the icy channel between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Early surveys had left the rock's ownership quietly unresolved for years, but with all signs pointing to the opening of lucrative sea lanes between Europe and Asia, new deposits of fossil fuels and minerals, and future open-water fishing grounds, Hans Island suddenly mattered.
In 1984, a team of Danes helicoptered over from Greenland to plant a flag on it, purportedly along with a bottle of liquor and a sign that read "Welcome to the Danish island." A Canadian gunboat patrol later replaced the flag with their own banner (nobody seems to know what happened to the booze), and thus it went back and forth for years, with Canadian politicians proclaiming as recently as 2005 that the Danish intrusion was an "invasion of Canada." Satellite imagery finally stopped the "flag war" by showing that the boundary line splits the island rather than sidestepping it. But the Hans Island incident was only the beginning.
Under the Law of the Sea Treaty, even the smallest patch of land offshore can anchor territorial rights to huge swathes of surrounding ocean. Russian geologists and politicians now say that the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea belt of rock bisecting the heart of the Arctic Ocean, is an official extension of their mainland. This, of course, ignores the fact that it lies beneath thousands of feet of water and also comes close to the continental rims of Canada and Greenland, as well. In July of this year, a Russian nuclear icebreaker mapped the sea bed in hopes of bolstering that bold assertion. If the United Nations approves the claim, then Russia stands to gain 380,000 square miles of what used to be considered international waters, along with exclusive rights to massive reserves of oil and gas on the shallow continental shelves.
Ironically, the artificial global thaw that spawned this land grab was largely caused by the nations that are now hoping to cash in on it; the United States, for example, was the planet's largest emitter of greenhouse gases until China surpassed it recently. Stay tuned for more drama as some of the world's most powerful nations squabble over a high-stakes bonanza that will reshape the geography of the far north for thousands of years to come. Let's hope that this burgeoning "cold rush" doesn't trigger any hot conflicts, as well.
[Image: Flickr user Polar Cruises]
Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a PhD in biology and geology from Duke University. His new book is DEEP FUTURE: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (St. Martin's Press, March 2011).