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No Man’s Ice

No Man’s Ice

The intensely complicated and often comical battle for a most inhospitable region
By Tim Edwards
Feb 01

Famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s third and final victory was making the first indisputable crossing of the North Pole in 1926, flying over it in an airship. He had also been the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage and the first to reach the South Pole, all within the previous quarter-century. “My work is fulfilled,” he announced. “All the big problems are solved. The work that remains in polar exploration is a matter of detail. Let others deal with it.” If Amundsen knew then what we know now, he might not have spoke so assuredly—these matters of detail have become, according to UBC international law professor Michael Byers, the single most complicated area of international law. And we’re still decades from figuring them out.

Amundsen’s voyages were the stuff of legend—epic, in the truest sense of the word. What followed would be better described as comedy: Three great nations—Canada, Russia, and Denmark—working tirelessly to establish dominance over an invisible point close to 13,000 feet under water, almost perpetually covered in ice and thousands of miles from any port. Temperatures in the winter, when the sun doesn’t rise for months, dip down to -50C and in the summer they hardly rise above zero. “If there were resources on the ocean floor [at the pole],” says Byers, “they would be the most expensive resources on the planet to extract.”

And then the Canadian government swiftly and loudly swooped in and turfed that “gentleman’s agreement” right before the claims were filed.

So what exactly is being fought over? Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said in 2013 that the Canadian government wanted to secure as much of the seabed as possible for future generations, which might have better access to its resources. But up until 2013, the scientists and lawyers in Canada and Denmark were generally in agreement to end their claims at an equidistance line between the two countries in the interest of reducing overlap (there was still some) and getting the whole thing sorted. (Russia’s claim also stopped at the North Pole “for diplomatic reasons,” says Byers.) But that meant Canada didn’t include the North Pole in its claim. And then the Canadian government swiftly and loudly swooped in and turfed that “gentleman’s agreement” right before the claims were filed.

Before we get to the wholly entertaining sideshow which took place in Canada’s parliament that fateful Christmas season (Santa Claus makes an appearance!) you should know the basics of how the dispute over the North is being settled.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea sets out the rules for claiming territory off a state’s coast. A coastal state has 10 years, from the date they ratify the convention, to make a submission (with the science to back it up) on how far their continental shelf extends. A country automatically has the rights to the seabed—and the minerals and other resources contained within, but not the water and fish above—up to 200 nautical miles from its coast or until its continental shelf ends. If they can scientifically prove that their continental shelf extends farther, they can claim seabed beyond that. So the extension of the continental shelf under water is the nut of the problem of who owns what, made all the more difficult by features like the Lomonosov Ridge, which stretches from Ellesmere Island to Russia. (Both continents were, after all, joined together long ago.) What’s more, says Byers, is that the North Pole already falls on Denmark’s side of the equidistance between Ellesmere Island and Greenland—and the two countries agreed on an equidistance line in 2012 for 200 nautical miles extending north off the two islands, to separate their exclusive economic zones.

As Canada came up on its deadline to file a submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf—in 2013, 10 years after it signed onto the convention—word got out to The Globe and Mail that Canada’s submission would stop right before the North Pole (at the aforementioned equidistance line), as the science wasn’t there to back up a further claim; the seabed wherein the pole sits, on the eastern side of the Lomonosov Ridge, had not yet been mapped by Canadian scientists.

Within days, on December 9, Foreign Affairs Minister Baird announced a partial submission would be made with the understanding that Canada would be finishing its submission, which will include the North Pole and as much additional seabed as possible, after it gathers the data to back it up. “That came as a surprise and a disappointment to the other countries as they had actually been planning on all limiting their submissions, to some degree, so as to reduce overlaps,” says Byers. “It caught the Canadian scientists and lawyers by surprise because they had been communicating with the prime minister’s office for five years as to what exactly they were doing, and everything was fine up until the last moment when someone in the PMO changed his or her mind.”
Byers is the project lead for an initiative by ArcticNet (a consortium of Arctic scientists representing 30 Canadian universities and several government departments) that analyzes the Arctic Ocean seabed dispute in an effort to provide input and recommendations to government. “Although I don’t work for the government on this issue, I’m fairly well informed. It’s a small community of experts.”

The Danes made their own submission in December 2014, which includes the North Pole (and Byers says there is more science backing up their claim than there is backing up ours). 

Byers says the announcement effectively terminated a cooperative relationship between Canada and Denmark (and even Russia, to a degree). “The [Canadian] scientists have been trying to collect data in the areas the prime minister requested, and they’ve been having a great deal of difficulty doing that because nobody will partner with us anymore,” says Byers. Canada sent the two icebreakers, the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and the CCGS Terry Fox, to map along the Lomonosov Ridge this past summer. But they only collected 20 per cent of the data they’d hoped to gather because the Terry Fox was too narrow to break ice for the St. Laurent, which couldn’t ice break (a very noisy process) as it was the ship outfitted with sonar and seismic equipment for data collection. Before the announcement, says Byers, Denmark and Canada jointly contracted Russian icebreakers to do the work.

Our neighbours’ annoyance was obvious. Russia beefed up its military presence in its uncontested Arctic regions, and internal Canadian government emails accessed by The National Post hinted our government knew it was surprising the other contestants. “We will have to provide some info for our embassy in Denmark at some point,” reads an excerpt from a Dec. 4 note.

The Danes made their own submission in December 2014, which includes the North Pole (and Byers says there is more science backing up their claim than there is backing up ours). The Russians made their original submission in 2001, which stopped at the pole, but were told by the commission to gather more info. Byers says their updated submission is expected to be handed in this year, and it might go further than it originally did.

“Everyone is making submissions that include all the possible shelf that is available under the science and leaving the negotiations—there will have to be negotiations at some point on boundaries—leaving those until the scientific process is done, which won’t likely be for another 10 to 20 years.” Byers took care to note that this has effectively delayed the conversation until far after the current prime minister has left office.

So where does this leave us? With an already complicated process further muddled by diplomatic gaffes? Well, in the end, politics won’t play any role in the resolution. The process, at the UN level, is one of science. “It’s difficult to convey to people that a system that’s so complicated can actually work, but it does,” says Byers. “It’s working around the world. There are literally hundreds of countries participating in this process with regards to continental shelves in all the world’s oceans. The reason it works is that ultimately it’s an issue of scientific fact, and despite the complexity of the legal provision, ultimately the question is determined by the character of the seabed, and no country can change the character of the seabed.” Only the slowly shifting tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust can do that. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll see a resolution before they do.


When the government declared the North Pole would be included in its submission to the UN in 2013, press asked Liberal leader Justin Trudeau if he thought Canada should vie for the territory. He said he would defer to the scientists working on the case. Then, in parliament’s question period on Dec. 10, the ongoing debate about the accusation that Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, gave then-senator Mike Duffy money to help pay back ineligible senate expenses, veered clumsily toward the North Pole.

Parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra, prone to flights of fancy in his answers, highlighted his government’s record in the North and then went on to add, “Of course, we are even defending the North further by making a claim on the North Pole. We know that the Liberals do not think that the North Pole or Santa Claus is in Canada. We do. We are going to make sure that we protect them as best we can.” And it didn’t end there.

Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc asked for the government to answer several questions about the senate scandal as “an early Christmas present.” Calandra: “With respect to giving Canadians a gift, it is hard to take that party seriously when the person who we most look to this year to give gifts, including my daughters, is Santa Claus. All of a sudden the Liberals are suggesting that Santa Claus is no longer Canadian and that they would abandon the North Pole and abandon Santa Claus. On this side of the House, we are going to stand up not only for my daughters, but for your family as well, Mr. Speaker, and for all those young Canadians, in the spirit of Christmas, who are waiting for Santa Claus to come and visit.”

The next question didn’t reference the North in the slightest, but the word “Christmas” had already been dropped and there was no going back. Calandra: “I ask the Liberal Party to join with us in protecting the citizenship of Santa Claus.” I’ll leave this here, but note that Trudeau said, in an interview with CBC’s Evan Solomon the next day, that “Everyone knows that Santa Claus is Canadian” before reasserting his belief that the claim was best left to scientists. (Somehow, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair avoided this important citizenship discussion.) And 10 days later, at a ceremony (in Vaughan, Ontario of all places) Immigration Minister Chris Alexander awarded “Santa and Mrs. Claus” passports. Apparently, there are photos confirming this happened.
Oh heck, here’s one more from Calandra: “I will of course do my best to stand up for Santa Claus each and every day in this House, that includes in question period.”