In This Article Arctic Region

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Hague Academy Courses
  • Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Ice Islands

International Law Arctic Region
Elena Conde Pérez, Marzia Scopelliti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0090


The two polar regions of the planet share some common features, namely extreme climatic conditions according to which the physical and effective occupation of the territory is complex. They also each possess distinctive characteristics. While the Antarctic region enjoys a specific regime, the so-called Antarctic Treaty System, the Arctic region does not have its own legal system. While Antarctica is a terrestrial space, the Arctic is an ocean—or, rather a set of ice seas—and, for this reason, it is governed in large part by the law of the sea. One of the main problems that arise in connection with the Arctic region is that of determining its spatial bounds. Various criteria have been developed: one is based on the limit of tree growth and another is based on the Arctic Circle, located at latitude of 66°30′. Today, due largely to the process of global warming, the Arctic has great strategic and economic interest. From the strategic point of view, it is a region located in the territory of the traditional powers, which raises the issue of its possible militarization. From the economic point of view, it is a region where important natural resources abound, and the ongoing Arctic meltdown has made possible the opening of new routes to market territorial disputes in the Arctic are few (Denmark and Canada have disputing sovereign claims over Hans Island), the issue of sovereign claims of the several states bordering the Arctic Ocean (Canada, Denmark, the United States, the Russian Federation, and Norway) raises issues centering on the delimitation of maritime spaces under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), especially with respect to their respective continental shelves beyond two hundred nautical miles (article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). With the progressive melting of the ice, new trade routes (Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage) are opening up, making exploitation of natural resources easier. In addition, indigenous communities are affected not only by climate change, but also by the political game of great powers struggling to take control over their natural habitats. The Arctic also faces environmental hazards connected with oil spills, fishing, and mining. These threats enhance the need to delineate and defend the Arctic region and the national borders therein, to establish surveillance of trade routes, and to ensure proper exploitation of natural resources and protection of the inhabitants. In sum, this region is a first magnitude geostrategic fulcrum in which the interests of the international community converge. The same can be said of those of the national sovereignties of neighboring nations, which seek to control the region and its vast resources.

General Overviews

Since ancient times, polar spaces have posed an enormous challenge to mankind in its quest to explore and control. In the early 20th century, legal studies were already undertaken with respect to the Arctic region and its potential resources, and, especially, to claims of sovereignty over this space. However, it is primarily in the first decade of the 21st century when monographic and collective works relating to the Arctic have proliferated, and a concise selection of studies can be difficult to identify. In this context, Byers 2010, written in a simple and direct style, is especially useful for those who are approaching the topic for the first time. Also, Sale and Potapov 2010 provides a general but complete overview of the interests at stake as does Emmerson 2010. Pooter 2009, Manero Salvador 2011, and Labevière and Thual 2008 deal with the legal and strategic issues stemming from ongoing climate change in the Arctic. Osherenko and Young 1989, a classic study available digitally, treats the interests of the great powers in the area, most especially exploring solutions to the conflict from the perspective of the United States. See also Cinelli 2012.

  • Byers, M. Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North. Vancouver, Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Byers is a known expert on the Arctic region. His study explains in straightforward language the sometimes contradictory rules governing the division and protection of the Arctic and the disputes that remain unresolved. Notwithstanding, the author considers that in the Arctic, cooperation, not conflict, prevails, and that this is a space where the sovereignty of individual nations must be exercised for the benefit of all.

  • Cinelli, C. El Ártico ante el derecho del mar contemporáneo. Valencia, Spain: Tirant lo Blanch, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive and updated study of the current legal problems facing the Arctic region. The author deals with the complex issue from two perspectives: from the confrontation of sovereign interests and from the perspective of international cooperation.

  • Emmerson, C. The Future History of the Arctic. London: Bodley Head, 2010.

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    Emmerson reveals that this complex area of the world is filled with opportunity and challenge. The Arctic has found its way to the center of issues that will challenge and define our world in the 21st century, including energy security and the struggle for natural resources, climate change and its uncertain speed and consequences, the return of great power competition, and the remaking of global trade patterns.

  • Labevière, R., and F. Thual. La Bataille du grand Nord a Commencé. Paris: Perrin, 2008.

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    In their book, Richard Labevière and François Thual focus on problems making the Arctic a vital area, strategically and soon economically.

  • Manero Salvador, A. El deshielo del Ártico: Retos para el Derecho Internacional: La delimitación de los espacios marinos y la protección y preservación del medio ambiente. Cizur Menor, Spain: Aranzadi, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Deals with the Arctic meltdown and the challenges for international law. The delimitation of marine spaces and the protection and preservation of its environment are among the environmental problems affecting the contemporary world. The status of the Arctic Ocean is one of the most worrying since it reflects the impacts resulting from global warming. The importance of the subject fully justifies the attention that should be given it from the perspective of international law.

  • Osherenko, G., and O. R. Young. The Age of the Arctic: Hot Conflicts and Cold Realities. Studies in Polar Research Collection. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a classical study of the issue—originally published in 1989 and digitally printed in 2005—that provides a review of the situation from a social, political, and human standpoint and provides an in-depth study of contemporary global controversies involving the Arctic.

  • Pooter, Hélène de. L’emprise des états côtiers sur l’Arctique. Paris: Pedone, Institut de Droit économique de la Mer, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Hélène de Pooter points out in her book that, due largely to global warming, the polar ice slot profoundly changed access to the Arctic region. The opening of new navigable seaways, providing access to significant reserves of oil, gold, gas, diamonds, and other minerals, encourages coastal states (Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway) to assert their sovereignty over the Arctic Ocean.

  • Sale, R., and E. Potapov. The Scramble for the Arctic: Ownership, Exploitation and Conflict in the Far North. London: Frances Lincoln, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    The Scramble for the Arctic examines the history of the region and its exploration, the current state of ownership, the legal status of the Arctic and its waters, the likely outcomes of today’s power plays, and what is at stake both politically and ecologically. Includes illustrations and maps.

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