DYER STRAITS: The Danish Santa

Countries laying claim to North Pole, but is there anything there really worth fighting for?

Saint Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas) has had to put up with a lot over the years. After the latest blow, he may not show up at all next week.

First they decided that he had to reside at the North Pole, where the temperature often falls to 50 degrees below zero and there are several months of complete darkness each year just when the work-load peaks. The south coast of what is now Turkey, where St. Nick originally lived and worked, was much nicer.

Then in a series of ads in the 1930s the Coca-Cola Company crystallised his image as a fat old man wearing clothes that are frankly a fashion disaster. And now, as a final indignity, they are trying to make him a Danish citizen.

On Monday, Denmark submitted documents claiming the North Pole as Danish territory  (since the Danish kingdom includes Greenland). It was a “historic and important milestone” for Denmark, said Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard. It was also provocative and pointless, but he forgot to mention that.

The Danish government does not actually want or need the North Pole, and does not imagine that it would derive any practical benefit from “owning” it. It is just responding to the equally baseless Canadian declaration last December that the North Pole is sovereign Canadian territory, or at least that the seabed 4,000 metres beneath it is.

The way that claim came about is quite instructive. Canada has a huge archipelago of Arctic islands, and for years Canadian government scientists have been gathering evidence to support a Canadian claim to exclusive economic rights over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean adjacent to those islands. All five countries that border the Arctic Ocean have been preparing similar claims to the seabed off their own coasts.

Until last December, Canada made no claim to the North Pole. It was only days before the country was due to submit its final claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government finally woke up.

The claim wasn’t in the original submission because Canada has no real case in international law. Even if the Commission ends up accepting the contention by Russia, Canada and Denmark (on behalf of its Greenland territory) that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge extends their respective bits of the continental shelf into the central Arctic Ocean, the principle of “equidistance” would give the North Pole itself to the Danes or the Russians.

For the past nine years Prime Minister Harper has travelled to the Canadian Arctic every summer to give the Canadian media a “photo op.” He promises new ice-breakers and an Arctic naval base, he stands on a submarine as fighters fly overhead, he sits in the cockpit of a Canadian F-18, he shoots a rifle in a military exercise — every year a new image of him personally defending Canadian sovereignty from some unspecified threat.

There is no threat to Canadian territory, of course, and even in terms of seabed rights Canada’s only serious dispute is with the United States (over a bit of seabed north of the Yukon-Alaska border in the Beaufort Sea). But Harper’s pose as the staunch defender of Canadian “rights” serves his conservative, nationalist agenda and plays well with the Canadian media.

So when Harper’s minions belatedly realized that the government’s scientists and civil servants had not included the North Pole in Canada’s claim to the commission, Harper slammed the brakes on and demanded that they rewrite it. He will have been told by the experts that Canada has no legal case — but he also knows that by the time that becomes clear to the public, many years from now, he will no longer be in office.

Canada didn’t submit its final claim last December after all. The poor boffins in Ottawa are struggling to reformulate it to include the North Pole, while Harper trumpets his determination to protect Canadian “rights.” And the Danes, who were previously willing to let sleeping dogs lie, have now responded by making their own rather more plausible claim.

The Russians may be next. President Vladimir Putin also likes to be photographed in the Arctic, surrounded by military kit and bravely defending Russian sovereignty. It’s getting ridiculous — but might it also be getting out of hand?

Probably not. There has been much loose talk about allegedly huge reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic seabed, but not much actual drilling is likely to happen in the challenging conditions of the Arctic Ocean when the oil price is below $80 per barrel. (It’s currently in the mid-$50s, and will probably be down there for a long time.)

There’s really nothing else up there that’s worth fighting over.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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