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"The Arctic Is Experiencing a 21st-Century Gold Rush."
Wrong. In August 2007, a minisubmarine carrying Artur Chilingarov, a Russian parliamentarian and veteran explorer, descended into the ice-covered sea at the North Pole, extended its robotic arm, and planted a Russian flag on the seafloor. The world's reaction was swift, and in some cases furious. "This isn't the 15th century," fumed Peter MacKay, then Canada's minister of foreign affairs. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory.'"
Maybe not, but many countries are looking at the Arctic today with fresh eyes. Because of climate change, the Arctic Ocean's summer ice cover is now half of what it was 50 years ago. In recent years, Russian and Canadian armed forces have staged Cold War-style exercises in the far north, and in the summer of 2009 a pair of German merchant ships conducted voyages across the relatively ice-free waters of the Northeast Passage, the long-dreamed-of trade route from Europe to Asia. And maybe the only thing heating up faster than the Arctic Ocean is the hyperbole over what's under it. "Without U.S. leadership to help develop diplomatic solutions to competing claims and potential conflicts," scholar Scott G. Borgerson wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2008, "the region could erupt in an armed mad dash for its resources."
It could -- but it won't. Anarchy does not reign at the top of the world; in fact, it's governed in a manner not unlike the rest of the planet. The region's land borders -- shared by Canada, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States -- are all set and uncontested. Several maritime boundaries do remain under dispute, most notably those between Canada and the United States in the Beaufort Sea and between Canada and Denmark in Baffin Bay. But progress has been made recently in resolving even the thorniest disagreements: In April, after 40 years of negotiating, Norway and Russia were able to forge an equitable deal for a new boundary in the Barents Sea, a continental-shelf area rich in fisheries and oil and gas reserves.
What about the part of the Arctic where sovereignty remains unresolved: the seafloor that Chilingarov tried to claim? Despite being covered with ice for much of the year, the Arctic Ocean is governed much like the rest of the world's oceans -- by a maritime treaty that has been ratified by all the Arctic countries except the United States, which generally abides by its terms anyway.
Chilingarov's flag gambit was a clever bid for attention, but not much more than that. Although the resources of the Arctic seabed are likely to be partitioned among the five countries that could plausibly claim them, it won't be on a first-come-first-served basis. The world has learned a lot since the resource and land grabs of earlier centuries; for the most part, the only scuffles over borders and oil fields today are in regions that are badly destabilized already.
Tiffini M. Jones/U.S. Navy /via Getty Images