Unstated assumptions color Arctic sovereignty claims

May 28, 2009

Settling the growing debate over ownership of Arctic Ocean resources is complicated by the fact that the various countries involved have different understandings of the geography of the place.

Phil Steinberg, an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Florida State University in Tallahassee, says coming to terms with those divergent views is the first necessary step to resolving what is becoming a prickly international issue as opens up more of the .

In a presentation at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences taking place at Ottawa's Carleton University, Dr. Steinberg says that people make unstated assumptions about geography when they talk about places. In the case of the Arctic Ocean, there are two opposing concepts: Is the Arctic Ocean just water that you pass over, or is it land with water on top of it - land that belongs to a country?

He says that when countries such as Russia talk of resource extraction, they are thinking of the Arctic as land with water on top of it. Canada makes the same assumption when it talks of the as belonging to Canada. The U.S., however, views the Northwest Passage as just water - water that people pass over to travel from one place to another.

"In the U.S. national imaginary, I don't think there's the idea that the space up there is divided into territories that belong to anybody," says Dr. Steinberg. He adds that some of those assumptions are built right into our maps.

Look at a map of the world, says Dr. Steinberg: Land areas are divided into countries, each in a different colour. That reinforces the idea of ownership. But on a map the sea is a coloured a uniform blue - a graphic representation of the oceans being freely accessible to all.

The same idea applies to Antarctica, which is generally coloured white on maps and not marked by firm territorial divisions. In the Arctic, there is one further complicating factor: When the ocean is covered by ice, it can be walked on and to some extent used like land; but when the ice melts, the Arctic is .

"In trying to understand the debate, it's always helpful to understand the implicit references each side is making," says Dr. Steinberg. "Often, the disagreements are over unspoken assumptions.

"In the case of the Northwest Passage, a whole lot of what is going on from the U.S. side is fear of setting a precedent.

"Small issues become big issues when states become fearful of setting precedents."

Organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress 2009 brings together over 8,000 researchers from Canada and around the world.

Source: Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Explore further: New study confirms water vapor as global warming amplifier

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Arctic Ocean waters warm suddenly

Oct 07, 2005

Water flowing from the North Atlantic Ocean into the Arctic provides evidence that the Arctic Ocean is warming, according to U.S. and European researchers.

Arctic Map plots new 'gold rush'

Aug 06, 2008

Researchers at Durham University have drawn up the first ever 'Arctic Map' to show the disputed territories that states might lay claim to in the future.

Arctic global warming may be irreversible

Mar 14, 2006

Scientists, noting sea ice in the Arctic has failed to form for the second consecutive winter, fear global warming may be irreversible in polar areas.

Recommended for you

Huge waves measured for first time in Arctic Ocean

1 hour ago

As the climate warms and sea ice retreats, the North is changing. An ice-covered expanse now has a season of increasingly open water which is predicted to extend across the whole Arctic Ocean before the middle ...

New research reveals Pele is powerful, even in the sky

7 hours ago

One might assume that a tropical storm moving through volcanic smog (vog) would sweep up the tainted air and march on, unchanged. However, a recent study from atmospheric scientists at the University of Hawai'i ...

Image: Wildfires continue near Yellowknife, Canada

7 hours ago

The wildfires that have been plaguing the Northern Territories in Canada and have sent smoke drifting down to the Great Lakes in the U.S. continue on. NASA's Aqua satellite collected this natural-color image ...

Excavated ship traced to Colonial-era Philadelphia

9 hours ago

Four years ago this month, archeologists monitoring the excavation of the former World Trade Center site uncovered a ghostly surprise: the bones of an ancient sailing ship. Tree-ring scientists at Columbia ...

User comments : 0