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.

Blog Themes of A World in 2050

Based on past and current patterns, researchers show what could be a possible future. Is that the future then?

The half-way point of the 21st Century has become the newest marker toward projection of what the world will be like. Global and local models are made that try to indicate and predict over the course of the next 35 years, what kinds of environmental and human challenges can we expect if current trends continue.

Based on past and current patterns, researchers show what could be a possible future. Is that the future then?  No, not necessarily. However, analysis of existing trajectories can help us make smarter and more informed decisions as we consider conservation, stewardship, and proactive measures on Earth.

How is the world changing and how can we understand what the world potentially will look like in 2050 and beyond? What are the deepest geo-related concerns and how can we began to formulate ideas and innovation that counter trends that are unsustainable? These are the types of questions that we hope to consider and reflect on with you in the current foci of the blog. We welcome your participation.

So what are some of the top areas of concern that geo-experts and others are working toward deeper understanding? There are many ways to set this context and I want to build a template for what kinds of topics we might engage with over the next academic year with this blog theme. Not all blog posts will be about 2050 but most will discuss change and give deeper reflection on these themes I’ve outlined below. These themes are interrelated and sometimes dependent on each other and although they present challenges to consider and they are not exhaustive.

  1. Population. As one of the paramount driving forces for most other concerns, population challenge can be summarized as we arrive at 2050 into three corresponding realities:
    • Nearly 9.5 billion people living on the planet, up from 7.1 billion currently;
    • Of the 9.5 billion people, about 7 out of 10 people will live in cities;
    • Population growth between 2016 & 2050 will be most dramatic in developing countries and primarily situated on the Asian and African continents.

See the UN report details here


  1. Water. We need water to live and with the population pressures (numbers of people) and the location of those people (mostly urban), we face a challenge to have adequate clean water.
    • Almost 5 billion people might not have a clean and adequate source of water for drinking;
    • Sanitation systems that use water are inadequate to handle human waste in many parts of the world currently.

See the report: The Future of Global Water Stress: An Integrated Assessment


  1. Food. As a vital resource, food security remains a top concern. Larger populations mean larger needs for food.
    • Kinds of animal foods, like fish in the ocean are already overfished;
    • Monoculture farms present challenges to pollination by the honey bee, our best pollinator;
    • Loss of arable land and loss of top soil from run-off pose questions about farm;
    • Crop pest intensification by shifts in climate could create unstable annual yields;
    • Applied pesticides entering into soil and water systems pose significant health issues for our bodies.

See the report as to solutions offered by the FAO


  1. Human Health. With the rise in populations and the industrial-sized animal farming done on a daily basis across the planet, the health of our human population will be challenged
    • Increases in health problems related to food diet and carcinogens is increasing;
    • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are in mass production and applied to humans and the planet in massive doses which means these newer strains of bacteria would not be treatable;
    • Global transportation of the population and urban population density increases could mean more easily transmitted disease,

See the World Health Organization’s risk assessment here


  1. Land-use. With challenges toward 2050 the manner in which we treat our lands and environments will matter even more.
    • The extraction of minerals for technology advances is likely to stress land resources and surround natural habitats;
    • Trees and forest are continuing to decline and prediction of tree canopy loss are larger than gains.
    • The realities of oil use and dependence leave questions about who will have oil, where will it come from and who will it be used;
    • Renewable energy gains could provide demand from large populations questions about adaptability and cost for developing countries will remain a key issue.

See the Global Forest Watch Interactive Map here


  1. Cryosphere. The frozen waters present on earth are currently challenged.
    • Ice melt and sea-level rise remains on a trajectory to occur in significant way putting stress on our large population numbers living on coasts;
    • Geopolitical fall out with a newly accessible Artic Ocean could increase tensions on rights of access and control at the north pole.

See the current modeling of our cryosphere here


  1. Climate. The challenges linked to shifts in global climate pose significant challenges towards 2050.
    • The increase in desertification continues to threaten many areas of human population;
    • Rising sea-levels mentioned above in the cryosphere remain a challenge;
    • Polarization of peoples on the issue of climate continues to depreciate honest communication and discussion;
    • Shifts in flora and fauna that are unable to adapt to change give way to loss of biodiversity and new trajectories for disease.

See the WFPs map on Food insecurity and climate change here


  1. Geopolitics. The challenges to our global system of governance continues to rise with the interconnected technologies and communication and sophisticated military advances
    • Dependence on technology has led to a rise in distrust between sovereign nation-states;
    • Global movements of population is historically unprecedented and immigration shifts continue to pressure nation-states in new ways;
    • Asymmetrical violence is easier today than yesterday and technological advances make larger geographies vulnerable to attack;
    • With the rise of religiously motivated terrorism has come questions about religions role toward peace instead of conflict.

See Metrocosm interesting visualization of human migration from 2010-2015

  1. Technology. The benefits of technology continue to drive exciting innovation but at what costs?
    • Reliance on technology to meet energy needs will be challenged and with advances and demand there could be larger blackouts and new systems of control by nation-states linked to energy;
    • With new technological breakthroughs, traditional governance new issues have arising in the areas of privacy, genetics, and cyberwarfare;
    • With increased technological means, dangers of criminal actions of data hijacking, identity-theft, intellectual property rights, and computerized banking leave our digital lives more vulnerable;
    • Ways of life with dependence on robotics, smart cars, and wearable virtual realities for everyday living, although intriguing, leave new ethically and legal questions that might be outpaced and in use before thoughtful discussion and implementation.

See the Norse map on recent cyber attacks from their server network

  1. The Poor. Will we rise higher and support the poorest peoples and countries as they are impacted the most by the challenges?
    • Orphan numbers continue on the rise reports indicate there are between 140 and 210 million orphans in the world;
    • Human trafficking continues to rise as does slavery;
    • Aged population remain in continual in concern as the prediction of mental health and Alzheimer’s is sky-rocketing.

See the work on the Human trafficking flow map

  1. Biodiversity. Human populations, shifts in climate, and over tapping resources are driving forces towards larger and more devastating extinction.
    • Ecosystem destruction is on the rise with loss of biodiversity;
    • With the loss of biodiversity often large scale extinction of life has occurred in the past;
    • Food systems dependent on biodiversity may be challenged and thus, increase food insecurity;

See more from Nature on Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity


  1. Urbanization. If 7 out of 10 humans will live in cities will urban environment promote healthy living?
    • Urban population increases mean more pressures on a variety of systems: water, food, sanitation, education, health, and justice;
    • Natural disaster impacts on unprepared and overstress urban systems present enormous challenges to protect people and place;
    • With city density increases, jobs are necessary, yet unemployed and young populations without jobs promote increase concern for violence;
    • Adequate and affordable housing for growing urban sectors remains a constant challenge.

See more from Luminocity’s World City Population interactive map


Of course there are many more important challenges before us and these set the context for much of our discussion.

In the coming weeks and months, we hope to discuss a variety of topics to bring deeper reflection on these and other kinds of issues. Using a quote from one of our participants from our Facebook page, Dan Riemersma mentioned, “I think, in a way, that I have always desired a GEO dept blog that uses a geographical voice to speak to the deep needs of the world, whether now or in the future. That’s what I really enjoyed as a student, and hope many more can learn too from this blog.

With the context set of a world moving toward 2050, we invite you to join us as we reflect deeper.

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