Hans Island: Crisis in the Arctic?


While elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases are responsible for rising temperatures on Earth, the Arctic region’s sea ice and glaciers are melting at a staggering rate. Compared with other regions on the planet, the Arctic is even warming faster. More of the Arctic is free of ice for longer periods. The possibilities for exploitation of natural resources and for control over Northern shipping lanes have prompted countries’ renewed interest in their competing claims to the region. Recently, Denmark (for Greenland) and Canada have clashed over their claims to a small, barren rock known as Hans Island. Measuring only 1.3 km², it is located in the centre of the Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait, the strait that separates Ellesmere Island from northern Greenland.

In 2005, Canadians were witness to a vivid demonstration of their government’s commitment to Arctic sovereignty. In July, a diplomatic row was sparked by two helicopter visits by the Canadian Forces to the island, an apparent response to the commencement of annual Danish naval visits in 2002. Besides delivering a plaque and replacing the Danish flag with a Canadian flag, the aircrew constructed an Inuit stone marker known as a Inukshuk. During the second visit, the military was accompanied even by the Minister of National Defence, the Hon. Bill Graham. The Danish government subsequently retaliated by calling in the Canadian ambassador to express its displeasure, then sending a warship to plant a Danish flag. However, by mid-August, the threat of the matter escalating to further military inspections had subsided. The two governments renewed their commitment to further negotiations over title to Hans Island. On September 19, 2005 both countries agreed to a truce in the dispute.

The 1973 Delimitation Treaty and Hans Island

The history of possession of the land in this part of the Arctic is long and interesting. Canada claims Ellesmere Island and the rest of its Arctic possessions on the basis of the British Adjacent Territories Order, which gave Canada all of British possessions on September 1, 1880. Denmark gained the Northern portions of Greenland after the United States relinquished its claims in an 1917 agreement in order to purchase the Danish West Indies. There is little subsequent history of tiny Hans Island itself until 1971 when, in the middle of discussions to determine the continental shelf boundaries between Canada and Greenland, Canada first claimed sovereignty over the island. Denmark directly disputed this claim.

Unable to agree on ownership of the island, the two countries simply left the issue unsolved. In the culminating Delimitation Treaty of December 17, 1973¹, the borderline between Canada and Greenland is drawn by connecting the midpoints of 127 straight baselines surveyed between the coasts of both countries. At the time, it was the longest continental shelf boundary treaty ever negotiated and may have been the first ever to be developed by a computer program. The treaty does not, however, draw a line from point 122 (80° 49' 2 - 66° 29' 0) to point 123 (80° 49' 8 - 66° 26' 3), a distance of 875 m (2,871 ft). Hans Island is situated in the centre of this area. During negotiations the two countires simply decided to stop the border at low water mark on one side of the island and restart it again at low water mark on the opposite site.

Future developments and solutions

Almost 40 years after the signing of the 1973 Delimitation Treaty, global warming, and with it changes in economic and strategic interests, have now invested the simple question of ownership of tiny Hans Island with grander symbolic and legal stature. With no known natural resources on the island itself, there is now speculation that the surrounding seafloor could contain such. As Arctic waters could become more navigable throughout the year, the interest in controlling the island is growing. Future acces to the Northwest Passage might be at stake.

Territorial dispute resolution through political means and international cooperation has been the preference of most countries. On several occasions, however, countries have decided to submit their disputes to a third party for binding legal settlements. Suggestions have been made for peaceful dispute resolution of the Hans Island dispute before the International Court of Justice². Although not the only party available to countries engaged in territorial disputes, it has heard many different cases, while complicated and often lengthy. A possible outcome could be as simple as dividing the island in two by drawing a straight line between points 122 and 123 of the 1973 Delimitation Treaty. There certainly is a point there, as the Canadian Press revealed in July 2007. After reviewing the latest satellite imagery available, Canadian federal officials conceded that the international boundary line roughly runs through the middle of Hans Island, and not east of the rocky outcrop as previously believed³.


¹ Agreement between the Government of the Kingdom of Denmark and the Government of Canada relating to the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf between Greenland and Canada, December 17, 1973 950 U.N.T.S. 148

² Stevenson, Ch., "Hans Off! : the Struggle for Hans Island and the Potential Ramifications for International Border Dispute Resolution", in: 30 Boston College International and Comparative Law Review (2007) 1, pp. 263-275

³ Satellite Imagery Moves Hans Island Boundary: Report, CBCNews,  Thursday, July 26, 2007