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Who "Owns" the North Pole?
by Barbara Rhodes, Chairperson
PolarFlight Research Forum
One of the most frequently asked questions that PolarFlight Research Forum receives pertains to "ownership" of the North Pole or the matter of political sovereignty or jurisdiction over the North Geographic Pole.
The short answer to the question of jurisdiction over the North Pole is that no one "owns" or has political sovereignty over the North Pole. As can be seen from the map above, the Geographic North Pole lies in the center of the vast Arctic Ocean. The North Pole itself is an imaginary point at the earth's northern axis where lines of longitude converge. Since the permanent polar ice pack that covers the Arctic Ocean is constantly in motion moved by wind and currents there is no means to permanently mark the precise location of the North Pole. Therefore, anyone who travels to the North Pole, whether by air, by icebreaker, or by surface travel, will not stay in the precise location for very long. This is unlike the South Pole that is on land--the continent of Antarctica--where there is a permanent base. It is the absence of land at the North Pole that characterizes the matter of polar jurisdiction. (The closest land areas to the North Pole, the northern coast of Ellesmere Island [Canada] and northernmost Greenland [Denmark], are both  roughly 450 statute miles away and virtually uninhabited).
However, the situation may be slightly more complicated than appears at first.  At various times Canada has claimed sovereignty over "everything" between Canada's territorial limits--between the longitudinal lines along the east and west borders of the country--"up to" the North Pole where, of course, the lines of longitude converge. On several occasions, Canada has claimed sovereignty over the Northwest Passage-- the northern sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans--since it lies within its territorial claims. But if the trend continues for the Northwest Passage to become more navigable, this claim is sure to receive serious international challenges.
An assertion of Canada's sovereignty over part of the Arctic Ocean that did not receive any international challenge occurred during the summer of 2000. When the pilot of a well-publicized north pole flight abandoned his plane on the ice near the pole due to engine trouble, Environment Canada threatened to fine him for "littering." This was obviously asserting a territorial claim over that part of the Arctic Ocean. (The pilot eventually returned, repaired the engine and flew the plane out to Alert in northern Canada on the shores of the Arctic Ocean).
One of the few times that the matter of sovereignty arose in the past concerns a murder that occurred on the polar ice pack near the North Pole in 1909. Two Eskimo companions allegedly murdered a member of 1908/09 Peary expedition although at the time the death was attributed to an accidental drowning. The murder came to light in the 1920s when the two Eskimos are said to have "confessed" to a Danish missionary. The eventual outcome (this is the short version of the story) was that the matter was dropped and one of the reasons given was that no one had any jurisdiction over the area where the murder occurred.
Nevertheless, with more and more people traveling to the North Pole each year, by various means, for various purposes, and from various points around the polar rim, disputes and matters of jurisdiction are bound to arise. It will be interesting to see how this situation, one that at first was largely a theoretical question, unfolds.
About the Author: Barbara Rhodes, author of this piece, is a founder and the Chairperson of PolarFlight Research Forum. She is a licensed airplane pilot and her specialty is polar aviation history. She lives on the coast in North Carolina in the US.
Who was "First" at the North Pole? click here.
For additional Frequently Asked Questions pertaining to the North Pole and the North Polar Regions, click here.