Geopolitics – Who’s on top?

Who owns the North Pole?

Who owns the North Pole?

The Arctic Ocean is in a state of thaw. If all things hold true with current trajectories, the ice melt in the Arctic Ocean by 2050 will have redesigned the geopolitical landscape of the North Pole. New shipping routes, fish harvesting, and precious mineral resources of oil and natural gas will be exposed for extraction. But who is in control of this space and who has the rights to this precious place?

It may be that ice melt will redesign geopolitics. Or perhaps, geopolitical struggles will be solved before we see seasonal passage in the Arctic waters by 2050.  We don’t really know.

There are five countries that have shores on the Arctic Ocean and eight that are geographically situated in the Arctic Circle. The Arctic circle is drawn at about 66.5 degrees’ North latitude. The countries with shores are the United States (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, and Russia. The other three in the Arctic circle are Iceland, Sweden and Finland. All eight of these countries constitute the Arctic Council, which is a forum for discussion of Arctic issues and include representation of indigenous peoples rights.

In Geography 110 – World Regions, I instruct students on the internationally recognized EEZ’s, the Exclusive Economic Zones, which stipulate a 200 nautical mile distance from countries into the oceans, as their exclusive waters and seabed – countries decide in this zone what is allowed regarding extraction of resources. In this zone, the first 12 nautical miles from the shore are considered territorial waters and international law in UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) stipulates that another country may innocently pass in these waters if they are expedient and their passage is conducted in a non-provoking manner.  When the EEZ distance is shortened because of the proximity of another state, then the EEZ is split between them or all involved. Beyond these zones are International Waters. These somewhat unregulated waters still have some protection in the seabed below, beyond the EEZ, which are regulated by the United Nations.

The North Pole currently resides in International Waters. The future holds uncertainty of this position.

Because of consistent ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, the EEZ’s in this region have typically been restricted geographically.  The ice restriction limits navigation of seaworthy vessels and that has caused numerous claims and challenges for ships wanting passage through the territorial waters. But the real concern is with the ratification of UNCLOS and what that means for an extension of the EEZs.

UNCLOS gives provision for the five Arctic shoreline nations to have rights in the Arctic circle. However, there are also provisions which allow any of these five countries to claim additional seabed authority based on continent shelf distances beyond their EEZ boundary by submission under UNCLOS to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The rules state that once a country ratifies UNCLOS, they have 10 years in which to make their case to claim the continental shelf sea bed beyond their EEZ boundary.  All but the United States have ratified UNCLOS. The rest have laid claim in various forms of the thawing Arctic.

Russia was second to ratify UNCLOS in 1997 but first to make a claim for extension of their EEZs. Their 2001 claim was that the Siberian continental shelf in Asia extended well beyond their EEZ and gave them the rights to the seabed, including the North Pole and other areas of the Arctic. They claimed the under-Arctic mountain range, the Lomonosov Ridge, was an extension of the continent shelf from Asia and Europe and gave them the rights to the seabed and all the mineral wealth under it. The UN delayed confirmation for the claims based on the need for further research.

Norway was first to ratify UNCLOS in 1996 but second to make a claim. In 1996, there was only little concern for ice melt and a limited collection of data dissemination in the international community on climate change and its effect on thaw at the poles. Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which internationally promoted issues of climate change was not released until 2006 and it was that same year that Norway had to make a claim (10 years from ratification) and they did so, extending some of their distance beyond the EEZ including appeals in their claim to the UN for the Barents Sea. The series of successful claims processed by the UN led to peaceful results between disputes with Russia over the area in the Barents.

Canada was next to ratify UNCLOS in 2003, thus by 2013 they were required to make their claim. With ice melt in the Arctic, they put forth a claim in 2013 to extend their EEZ on the continental shelf that included the North Pole. They discounted the previous claims of Russia for the North Pole. Government officials also indicated Canadian patrol vessels would protect their claims.

Greenland is the closest land mass to the defined North Pole and in 2004 Denmark, the country that administers Greenland as an autonomous country, had until 2014 to make a claim. They did so at the end of 2014, claiming the North Pole and even beyond to the Asian continental shelf on the edge of the Russian EEZ border. Denmark has claimed the Lomonosov Ridge as its territory.

The United States of America has yet to ratify UNCLOS and has no claim of extension in the region.

Recently in 2015 and February of 2016, Russia submitted extensive data to UNCLOS, claiming a region of 350 nautical miles beyond their shore, which includes 1.2 million square kilometers of seascape. Although UNCLOS has indicated work on the claims (see the submissions here and the Chair reports here), there yet remains questions about the geopolitical control of the North Pole.

Credit: University of Durham, full jurisdiction map here, and the claims of Russia here. (

Interestingly, UNCLOS may defer to the Ilulissat Declaration. In 2008, the five Arctic shoreline countries met and agreed that moving forward, the countries would follow and agree to international law as relates to the seas. They also agreed that, “We remain committed to this legal framework and to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.”, thus setting a precedent for international cooperation and agreement as a way forward with de jure claims.

If UNCLOS rules in favor of Russia, it may invoke challenge to Ilulissat Declaration since the participants have agreed to be, “committed to this legal framework”. One wonders to what degree the Ilulissat Declaration might be effective. Certainly, it is clear that the Arctic Council was not invited, which includes representation by indigenous peoples. If the Arctic does indeed get carved up, it will be reminiscent of the tragedy of the Berlin Conference in 1884, which divided Africa among the European powers and legitimized colonization, without any representation by the peoples of the African continent.

Who will own the North Pole? Who will be committed to its preservation, despite resource extraction. Will the changing ecosystem flora and fauna be able to survive? Will humans create more chaos on the planet already in environmental and political challenge? Will the geopolitical states uphold international law, even with these valuable resources at stake?

As we move toward 2050, let us keep an eye on the geopolitics of the Arctic and engage in the conversation.

Author: Dr. Jason E. VanHorn
Support for this Blog Theme comes with additional funding from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (CCCS) and Calvin College.

Whither Geographically-Informed Christian Missions?

Will our missionaries be prepared for this future?

The discipline of Geography, one of the academic majors represented in the GEO Department at Calvin College, is a sort of rarity. There are only a handful of private Christian-based colleges in the United States that have a geography major, let alone any PhD trained geographers. At Calvin College we have fluctuated between 5 and 4 PhD geographers for the last 20 years and have been striving in geography to understand the intersections of geography and Christian faith. It is a wonder why so many Christian higher-education institutions, which have as mission to impact the world for Jesus Christ, have a paucity of geography? Beyond geography majors, we have a wide range of other majors taking geography courses at Calvin, not just future missionaries, but at its basic level, how can missionaries know where they are going, what the world is like in its human and physical geography, and understand the deep connections of time and space – without geography?  Maybe it is time for Christian colleges in the United States to recognize the importance of this old academic discipline as part of the core fabric of who they are.

Many in Geography have been thinking about the year 2050, such as with recent conferences by an older geographic body of thinkers, the National Geography Society.

As I took my seat in the famous Low Memorial Library of Columbia University in New York City, the mighty pillars of marble stood tall against the backdrop of the stage. Around me were 250 other people from various walks of leadership: the Vice President of Google, the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency of the United States, the Vice President of Shell Oil, the Geographer of the United States in the US State Department – the list goes on. We were at the Geo2050 conference sponsored by the American Geographical Society, which brought together experts from around the globe in November 2014.

Our task at Geo2050 was to converse broadly about the current state of the world from environment to energy to society to technology. Together, we considered what the world will be like at the mid-point of the 21st Century. The challenges we face are significant, and both hopeful and dire possible futures were discussed. Although the Low Library has etched in the exterior limestone, “For the advancement of the common good and the glory of the Almighty God”, conversation about faith in God was absent from the agenda this year. I could not help but think, as a Christian who happens to be a geographer, about the ramifications for the American Church moving toward 2050.

So what about the Gospel and discipleship over the next 35 years? What should we as Christian leaders consider? The interconnected relationships of humans and the environment are vast and complicated. I explore these connections with students every semester. Whatever your opinions of the issue, it is clear that humans are placing mounting stresses on the environment (natural resource depletion, loss of habitats and species, earth heating, ice melt, etc…), The key to thinking about the future of making disciples for Christ is really based on one simple question – where will people be?

Given the current trends in the world, in 2050:

  • There will be approximately 9.5 billion people on earth, and
  • The vast majority (7 in 10) of the 9.5 billion people will live in urban places.

That second point is vitally important. For the first time in history, more people are living in cities than in rural areas. The crossover to an urban world happened in 2008, and there is no return to a rural world in sight.  Our conversations about the future of ministry should have a significant urban focus. Why?

First and foremost, because that is what Jesus did. Jesus went to the people and met them where they were. You know that too. Any church that wants to thrive in ministry not only opens its doors, but it goes to the people in the community and ministers with real dialogue seasoned with the life-changing Gospel. Where will the people be? They will be in the city. And that is where we should be too.

Are we ready to train the next generation of Christian leaders to understand ministry in the city? In 2050, we will be sending our missionaries to the urban cores of high population density, especially in the developing world where urban growth is currently unprecedented. Will we empower missionaries going to these uncharted urban mazes? Will we train them for the significant challenges they will face with the poor that are flocking to developing cities forming new squatter settlements every day? And what about children? There are 200+ million orphans in the world, according to the latest UNICEF estimates. We need to prepare missionaries well, because the poor and orphans will increase in this urban growth movement.

What will urban growth be like in the next 35 years? Right now the most urban growth is in the developing world. The UN and geographical research estimates that the Earth in 2050 will host in excess of 1,000 cities with more than a million people predominantly in Asia and Africa. China leads the way with well over 160 cities of a million or more. In 2050, India will be our most populous country with the largest urban population on the planet. The absorption of cities into megacities or mega-urban corridors will be the norm, with at least 40 megacities with 10 million people or more. The cities with the most expected growth are outpacing their ability to provide for basic services of water and energy and sanitation.

Will our missionaries be prepared for this future?

What about urban growth in the developed world? The growth rate is much slower at present. However, demands on energy, shifts in natural resources, consolidated ownership of fertile agricultural land and immigration all point to a continued move of people to the city. Edge cities, con-urban landscapes where cities meet cities, and new forms of built environments will be where most people live.

What are some ways we as the church can adapt to this urban future? First, look for new opportunities in your city as it grows and changes. Where are the new places for ministry as change occurs? For example, in my city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, we have many new apartment buildings and condominium towers going up in the downtown. Are existing churches in the downtown changing the way they approach ministry with the influx of new pedestrian-based residents now living there? Are they adapting to the vast opportunities to minister to immigrants coming to the urban sector, and what does that look like? As we get better at these urban ministry approaches, will that translate to empowering our missionaries overseas?

Second, where are opportunities for church-planting? How can the suburban/exurban churches partner with the urban churches in ministry? My suburban church is trying that with an urban church partnership. It isn’t easy, but God is doing some wonderful things. Will we lead new initiatives in these kinds of partnerships?

Third, remember that cities are different and filled with people who are different, so ministry might not look the same from one city to another, and that is alright. You probably know your neighborhood pretty well, but if you do not know some of the basic demographics for your area, you should investigate at least the census details as a start. The American Community Survey (ACS), conducted annually in the USA, is another good way to learn sample statistics about your geography. Perhaps a church and non-profit partnership can lead to a county-wide congregational study that will reveal ministry opportunities in your city?

If you live outside the United States, you can check with your central statistics agency as a starting point for demographics. If you live in the USA, you can check out this mapping application I built to start to learn about your area – Understanding Your Geography ( As a model for regional congregational studies, you can check out the 2007 Kent County Congregational Study, documented by the “Gatherings of Hope” report (

During the triumphal entry, we find an interesting, often overlooked, response from Jesus. After the many praises of Hosanna, Holy Scripture indicates, “When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it,…”( Luke 19:41 NASB). Do we have the same compassion for the people of our city and cities around the world?

Author: Dr. Jason E. VanHorn
Support for this Blog Theme comes with additional funding from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (CCCS) and Calvin College.