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Arctic Sovereignty: The International Dispute Over Who Owns the North

Originally posted: Jan. 2009

Lecture Series

2009ArcticSovlectureWith the melting of the polar ice cap, significant undiscovered oil and gas reserves may soon be accessible. The Northwest Passage shipping route between Europe and Asia, 5,000 miles shorter than the Panama Canal route, will soon be an option. Who has rights to the resources lying under the seabed? Is the Northwest Passage an “international strait” or, as Canada claims, “internal waters?” What about the Inuit claim that sea ice constitutes traditional territory? Recently, a Britishthink-tank warned that if the “race for the Arctic” in not resolved, the potential for a polar war is a real possibility.

This lecture series will address the growing international dispute over who owns the Arctic from the perspective of the Arctic nations.

The International Legal Framework and Recent Developments Regarding the Continental Shelf in the Arctic Ocean
by Ted L. McDorman, Faculty of Law, University of Victoria
16 January 2009, 4:00 pm, Burke Room, Burke Museum of Natural History
Unlike the media hype, there is not a desperate scramble by States for the seafloor resources in the Arctic Ocean. There is an international legal framework anchored in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention which applies to the Arctic Ocean seafloor and which is being followed by the five States with coasts on the central Artic Artic Ocean (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway (Spitsbergen), the Russian Federation and the United States).

McDorman, Editor-in-Chief of Ocean Development and International Law Journal, will provide an indepth look at how the seafloor is being dealt with regarding jurisdiction.

Arctic Sovereignty and Climate Change: A Nordic Perspective by Christine Ingebritsen, Scandinavian Studies, University of Washington
6 February 2009, 4:00 pm, Burke Room, Burke Museum of Natural History
Greenland is experiencing political, economic and resource management opportunities as a consequences of rapid and sudden changes in climate and developments in the surrounding seas. In the fall of 2008, a majority of Greenlanders voted for greater autonomy from Denmark. Arctic trade routes have opened, creating new sea lanes and trade routes previously inaccessible. Some potential conflicts have resulted among those adjacent to these routes, which will be discussed. There are winners and losers in climate change politics. The Nordics are experiencing both: depending on anticipated consequences and geographic vulnerabilities.

Toward a Post-Arctic World by Barry Zellen, Center for Contemporary Conflict, Naval Postgraduate School
13 February 2009, 4:00 pm, Conference room, University Club
Zellen will discuss various issues, challenges and opportunities associated with the modernizing Arctic, including the increased political and economic participation of its indigenous peoples; he will also consider what a ‘post-Arctic’ world might look like.

Barry Zellen is an editor, researcher, and author at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Contemporary Conflict. He lived in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon from 1988 to 2000, where he worked in the field of indigenous language media. In addition to editing the quarterly Strategic Insights Journal, he directs a research project on Arctic security, and is author of, Breaking the Ice – From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic, (Lexington Books, 2008), as well as the forthcoming, On Thin Ice: Inuit, the State, and the Struggle over Arctic Sovereignty, (forthcoming, Lexington Books, 2009) and, Arctic Doom or Boom?: Geopolitics, Climate Change, and the Post-Arctic World, (forthcoming, Praeger Security International, 2009).

Russia’s Northward Perspective: The Arctic Promise vs. the Siberian Curse
by Mikhail Alexseev, Political Science, San Diego State University
20 February 2009, 4:00 pm, Burke Room, Burke Museum of Natural History
The presentation will focus on the nature of Russia’s economic and political interests in the region and on contradictory motivations with regard to sovereignty rights over the Arctic areas. On the one hand, the region contains valuable energy resource, but on the other hand, the cost of cold has profound economic, social, and political implications – particularly in the context of the efforts to develop the Russian Far East which intensified under Putin’s leadership.

Mikhail Alexseev (Ph.D., University of Washington, 1996) is an associate professor of political science at San Diego State University. He is an internationally recognized authority on migration, ethnopolitical conflict, and post-Soviet Russia. Alexseev is the author of Immigration Phobia and the Security Dilemma: Russia, Europe, and the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Without Warning: Threat Assessment, Intelligence, and Global Struggle (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) and is the editor of A Federation Imperiled: Center-Periphery Conflict in Post-Soviet Russia (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). He has been the principal investigator of a multi-year international research project on migration and ethnoreligious violence in the Russian Federation funded by the National Science Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (Title VIII, U.S. Department of State). His previous projects have been funded by Reuters, NATO, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, the U. S. Institute of Peace, the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Pacific Basin Research Center at Harvard University. Alexseev has published articles in Political Science Quarterly, Journal of Peace Research, Political Behavior, Political Communication, Europe-Asia Studies, Nationalities Papers, Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, and Pacific Focus. His editorial opinion articles on Soviet and Post-Soviet affairs have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Toronto Globe and Mail, USA Today, and The Seattle Times. He is a member of the Carnegie/MacArthur sponsored Program on New Approaches to Russian Security (PONARS) – Eurasia, based at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Alexseev’s research project summaries and data are posted on

Globalization and Climate Change: Challenges in the New Maritime Arctic
by Lawson Brigham, US Arctic Research Commission, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment
26 February 2009, 7:00 pm, Room 210, Kane Hall
Early in the 21st century the Arctic Ocean is undergoing extraordinary changes. The region has been understood for some time to be a large storehouse of untapped natural resources such as oil and gas, and mineral wealth (for example, nickel, copper, zinc, iron ore and palladium). Exploration and development of these natural resources, driven by recent, high commodity prices and worldwide demand, have today accelerated to where the Arctic is poised to be a new player in the global economy. The recent financial crisis notwithstanding, the long-term future of the Arctic and marine transport systems are tied to expanding natural resource development. Simultaneously, marine access in the Arctic Ocean is changing in unprecedented ways. Arctic sea ice is undergoing an historic transformation – thinning, extent reduction in all seasons, and substantial reductions in the area of multiyear ice in the central Arctic Ocean–which has significant implications for longer seasons of navigation and new access to previously difficult-to-reach coastal regions. In addition, the ongoing process for delimitation of the outer continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea presents unique challenges and unusual geopolitics to an already complex future for the maritime Arctic. Taken together, these changes present very real challenges to the existing legal and regulatory structures which cannot meet today’s needs for enhanced marine safety and environmental protection. Such challenges will require historic levels of close cooperation among the Arctic states and broad engagement with many non-Arctic stakeholders and actors within the global maritime industry. Only through determined, international cooperation will Arctic peoples and the marine environment be sufficiently protected in an era of expanding marine use.

Dr. Lawson W. Brigham is Deputy Director and Alaska Office Director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Anchorage. He is currently Chair of the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic nations. He is also Vice Chair of the council’s working group on Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) and was a contributing author to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. A 1970 U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate and a career U.S. Coast Guard officer from 1970 to 1995, Brigham commanded the patrol cutter Point Steele, the Great Lakes icebreaker Mobile Bay, the enforcement cutter Escanaba, and the polar icebreaker Polar Sea.

At the end of his career, Brigham served as chief of the Coast Guard’s Strategic Planning Staff and Director of the Coast Guard Work-Life Study (1990-1993). From 1993 to 1995, he was the commanding officer of Polar Sea, sailing on four polar deployments including the Arctic Ocean Section ’94 Expedition across the Arctic Ocean from Bering Strait to the North Pole and Fram Strait. Captain Brigham has participated in ten Antarctic expeditions and eight icebreaker voyages in the Arctic Ocean, and has sailed aboard icebreakers in Alaska, the Great Lakes, the Baltic Sea, the Russian Arctic, and around Antarctica. He has also served as a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the U.S. Naval War College, and as a faculty member of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, in the Office of Naval Research Chair in Arctic Marine Science (1996-1997). His research interests for more than three decades have included studies of the Russian Arctic, ice navigation, sea ice, and satellite remote sensing of the polar regions. He received a Ph.D. in polar oceanography from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and an M.S. in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Brigham is also a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval War College.

The series is sponsored by the Canadian Studies Center, Center for West European Studies, Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, Global Studies Center in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies; Global Trade, Transportation and Logistics Studies; Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory; and the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean. This lecture series is part of the Canadian Studies Center Circumpolar Initiative and the SIS 495C Arctic Sovereignty Task Force course.