The battle between the West and Russia over ownership of the Arctic has been brewing for years, says Jamie Doward in The Observer. Last week tensions were ratcheted up by Russia's announcement that it was sending a miniature submarine to plant its flag on the seabed as a symbolic claim on a chunk of the Arctic Ocean the size of Western Europe.
The stakes are high. The US Geological Survey estimates the ocean holds 25% of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbon fuels as well as "massive shoals of fish and strategically important shipping lanes". Melting ice means that the North West Passage, the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia, is now open to commercial shipping in summer. It may become viable all year. As for the oil, soaring prices ensure that drilling beneath the Arctic is no longer cost-prohibitive, says Andy McSmith in The Independent.
So who owns the Arctic? Russia, Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark all have claims. International law gives each nation control over an economic zone within 200 miles of their continental shelf'. The difficulty in the Arctic is that the geology is "fiercely disputed". The Russians claim that the Lomonosov Ridge, a sort of huge submerged walkway leading from Russia over the North Pole to Greenland and Canada is, geologically speaking, attached to their landmass. If this is the case, Canada and Denmark (through its sovereignty over Greenland) have a similar claim. To adjudicate, the UN set up the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf several years ago, but the necessary data to verify any of the claims are still missing. Moscow intends to put forward a legal claim to the UN Commission in 2009 and is pumping money into research to bolster Russia's case. The Danes and Canadians have joined forces to back their own claims.
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Should the rest of the world care? Yes. Oil companies will wreak havoc on the ecology of this pristine environment, and even without them the ice cap is shrinking at an "alarming speed". At a time of global warming, countries should be competing in a rush towards renewable energy, says Ben Stewart of Greenpeace, not fossil fuels.
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