PARIS (Reuters) - A tiny speck of pebbles found off the northern coast of Greenland could open up a new front in the looming battle for control of the Arctic and the North Pole.
The best candidate to date for the world’s northernmost point of land — a mythical place sought by explorers for centuries — was spotted in July during an expedition led by Arctic veteran Dennis Schmitt.
California-based Schmitt, best-known for his 2005 discovery of Warming Island off the eastern coast of Greenland, named it Stray Dog West because, he said, it “erred under the ice”.
It was exposed mainly by shifting pack ice.
As Greenland is under Denmark’s administration, this scrap of land just 40 meters (43.7 yards) long could extend Danish territory further north and strengthen Copenhagen’s claim on the pole.
Its discovery comes as countries around the Arctic Ocean — the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Iceland — are rushing to stake out the Polar Basin’s seabed, fishing rights and maritime routes.
“This little island could have a wide international significance,” said Stefan Talmon, professor of international law at Oxford University in Britain. “With the ice melting, more and more of these islands could emerge and play a role in maritime delimitations,” he said.
Denmark sent an icebreaker to the Arctic this summer to collect geological data in preparation for its claim to extend its shelf beyond the established 200 nautical miles from Greenland’s baseline.
If a country can show the seabed is a natural extension of its land territory, it gets the exclusive right to exploit the resources contained in its subsoil.
As temperatures are rising faster in the Arctic than elsewhere and the ice sheet is retreating — it has shrunk by more than a quarter in the past 30 years — previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves could be within reach in decades.
“Five potential claim areas have been identified off the Faroe Islands and Greenland, potentially including the North Pole,” Denmark’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation says on its website www.a76.dk.
Russia sought to stamp its authority on the pole this summer by planting its flag on the seabed beneath it, in a theatrical move that prompted irate responses from Ottawa and Washington.
Russia argues a ridge under the Arctic Ocean makes the pole Russian, even though the coast of Siberia is 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away.
Canada said earlier this month it would map its entire Arctic seabed. It is planning to build a deep-water port for patrol vessels near the eastern entrance of the fabled Northwest Passage, which was ice-free for the first time this summer.
Russia, like Norway, has until 2009 to submit a claim to extend its territory to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf: Canada has until 2013 and Denmark until 2014.
The United States has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 but the Bush administration is trying to do so. Only countries that have ratified it can make continental shelf claims, and get 10 years to make them.
But whether Stray Dog West helps extend Denmark’s sovereignty over the Arctic is an open question. All territorial claims depend on whether a feature is a rock or an island.
Only an island gives fishing rights and a claim to the seabed around it. To be one, Stray Dog West would need to be a naturally formed area of land recognized as fit for sustained human habitation and remain above sea level at high tide.
As it stands just four meters above sea level, it could disappear if the sea rises. Stray Dog West is some 700 km from the North Pole and only 4 km from Greenland’s coast.
“Its location is more symbolic than anything else,” Schmitt, 60, told Reuters during a visit to Paris.
Oodaaq, one of its official predecessors as the world’s most northernmost point of land, was discovered in 1978 by a Danish survey team. Named after the Inuit who accompanied Robert Peary on his epic attempts to reach the North Pole, Oodaaq is only a few hundred meters south of Stray Dog West.
Like Oodaaq, Stray Dog West is a depositional feature — the result of accumulated erosion material and land debris — not a tectonic feature forged by earthplate movements or collisions. This means it can be bulldozed by moving pack ice.
“It is poetically fitting that the world’s last point of land is the most lacking in substance,” said Schmitt, a U.S. citizen.
But if his latest discovery survives long enough, Schmitt says Stray Dog West could be added to world maps which are being redrawn by climate change.
Warming Island, a rugged piece of land near the eastern coast of Greenland shaped like three fingers pointing north, was included in this month’s revised Oxford University Press Atlas.
Schmitt found the ice bridge that connected it to the coastline had melted.
“There must be several Warming Islands out there, other points of land we thought connected to the land that are not,” said Henrik Hojmark Thomsen from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, a research and advisory institute.
This summer, Norwegian explorer Boerge Ousland discovered that Northbrook Island, part of the Franz Joseph Land archipelago off Russia, was not one but two islands.
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Additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo