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While President Donald Trump's interest in buying Greenland grabbed headlines recently, there's a largely overlooked, much more serious territorial issue in the Arctic: Russia's next chess move aimed at asserting ownership of the North Pole.

Russia recently launched a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon from a submarine near the North Pole. That's strategic, adding another dimension to a region that's heating up in more ways than one.

Ocean territories are defined primarily by a combination of three considerations: land masses, any shallow adjacent areas such as a continental shelf, and exclusive economic zones, which usually extend 200 miles from the coast.

It gets complicated where those lines from different nations overlap. The intersecting lines at the North Pole are a prime potential place for territorial disputes. Russia, Canada, the United States (via Alaska), Norway and Denmark all have some legal claim to a wedge of the Arctic pie. The rest of the international community also has a claim to inclusive uses of that portion of the Arctic Ocean.

To deal with these converging boundaries, nations created the Arctic Council in 1996. In addition to the five nations that connect at the North Pole, Finland, Iceland and Sweden complete the group of eight. Representatives of indigenous peoples, observer nations and non-governmental organizations also participate.

Russia, for its part, has taken the stance for years that it has special claim to the North Pole. The missile launch is just its latest attempt to assert sovereignty. In August 2007, Russia planted its flag on the seabed at the North Pole. And earlier this year, it put an anti-missile defense system in the region. It has also expanded and upgraded its military capabilities in northern Siberia.

Russia's claim is based on ambiguous issues about water depths (bathymetry) that connect the nation to the pole by a massive, relatively shallow underwater feature called the Lomonosov Ridge. It's dubious that the rules on sovereign territorial limits actually grant Russia that claim.

In any case, there is little doubt that Russia wants to redraw the territorial boundaries of the Arctic. What's unclear is how far it is willing to push the issue. Russia already dominates physical presence in the Arctic Circle. It has by far the largest fleet of icebreakers and other ships capable of operating there.

This makes the Arctic a dangerous, high-stakes game of strategy. Imagine how the world would look if Russia seized and defended the North Pole as its territory, perhaps erecting some kind of platform or artificial island to rise above the surface. The latest missile launch only makes the region more dynamic and fraught.


John Englander is an oceanographer and author of High Tide On Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis.

Editorial on 08/31/2019

Print Headline: The cold chess match


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