OTTAWA, May 28 /CNW Telbec/ - 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
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 global warming opens up more of the Arctic
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 Northwest Passage 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
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 water.
"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
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