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Arcitc Yearbook 2012
control of populations within: territorial boundaries fail to represent the power of non-state actors
(Agnew, 2009; Shadian, 2010) and misrepresent the power wielded by many nominally sovereign but
effectively impotent governments (Agnew, 2009). Moreover, the fact that oceans cover over 70% of
the globe undermines the simple fiction that we live in a completely territorialized world. The
provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have led to much
of the world’s oceans falling within some sphere of state control, whether by establishing territorial
waters (up to 12 nautical miles offshore) or exclusive economic zones (EEZ, up to 200 nautical miles
offshore). The latter limits are not immutable: Article 76 allows a state to claim economic exclusivity
over sea floor extending beyond the 200 nautical-mile limit if it can scientifically prove that the sea
floor is a geological extension of its continental shelf. Nowhere are the implications of this
stipulation more salient than in the Arctic.
Far from being a space entirely within “sovereignty’s orbit,” the Arctic is a place that defies the
comfortable association of sovereignty with territory.
Unlike Antarctica, a continent surrounded by
an ocean, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, to which five countries - Russia, Norway,
Greenland (Denmark), Canada, and the United States - have direct access. Because the region is
relatively small (approximately 6% of earth’s surface), and because it has unusually broad continental
shelves, a large proportion of the Arctic Ocean is “at risk” of being claimed (Dodds, 2010; Smith,
2010). Article 76 was not written exclusively in relation to the Arctic—it was intended to settle ocean
claims worldwide—and until recently, debates of Arctic seabed sovereignty have been largely
confined to the academic realm. However, recent sea ice recession driven by climate change has led
to a wave of new maritime sovereignty claims by Arctic littoral states, as well as military activities
intended to reinforce sovereignty over existing territory.
There are obvious economic reasons for these claims: receding sea ice means increased access to
potentially immense petroleum reserves for those states whose EEZs overlap with oil and natural gas
fields. A widely-cited assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic contains
approximately 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil, most of
which is offshore and in less than 500 meters of water (Gautier et al., 2009; Bird et al., 2008). In the
Russian Arctic alone, the total value of proven and potential petroleum reserves is estimated at $15
trillion US (Solozobov, 2009). Climate models project increased year-round maritime access by
midcentury within the EEZs of the five littoral states, particularly in Canada, Greenland, Russia, and
the U.S., using ice-strengthened vessels (Stephenson et al., 2011).