Which nation owns the North Pole?

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2007

That is the question being posed seriously for the first time in the history of the world. The first man to claim that he reached the Pole was Robert Peary. Traveling by dog sled, Mathew Henson and he, both Americans, arrived on April 6, 1909.

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In the 19th century, another arctic adventure was pursued by hundreds of men and dozens of ships to try to find a way through the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Most of this effort was led by the British, but it wasn't until 1906 that Roald Amundsen and his small party of Norwegians succeeded.

A convergence of two events is once again drawing attention to the North. Melting ice and warming seas is one. According to an article in the New York Times on August 10, "The area of floating ice in the Arctic has shrunk more than in any other summer since satellite tracking began in 1979."

The other is that the incredibly huge arctic basin is said to contain perhaps 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves.

There are five nations that have a claim to these riches: the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, each of which borders the vast arctic basin.

Denmark's claim is based on its relationship with Greenland. The claim of the United States comes from Alaska. What a prize indeed is this far northern state.

Recent events have highlighted the excitement. Russian mini-subs recently planted flags on the North Pole itself. The Canadian prime minister also visited the arctic, declaring Canada's intention to build a military post and to develop an ocean port.

As the continents warm in the years ahead, there are two principal issues: one concerns navigation, the right to transverse the Northwest Passage. Canada claims that these are inland waters, subject to its control. The other powers, principally the United States and Russia, claim that they have the right to pass from one end to the other freely. A trip through the Northwest Passage would cut 2480 miles off the distance from Europe to Asia as compared to the Panama Canal route.

Rights of navigation have historically been of great importance, especially to maritime powers. For example, although Turkey surrounds the Bosphorus, the tiny water link between Europe and Asia is open to free passage, especially important to nations bordering the Black Sea such as Russia.

The other issue is who owns the land in the Arctic Ocean underneath the ice and frozen seas. This can be complicated. For instance, there is an underwater mountain range attached to Greenland, 1240 miles long, which stretches to the North Pole.

In the August 12 Empire, Helge Sander, Denmark's minister of science, technology and innovation, said, "Preliminary investigations done so far are very promising."

Sander adds, "There are things suggesting that Denmark could be given the North Pole."

That would be a mighty step for sucha small country, surrounded by the North American nations and Russia and Norway.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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