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Who Claims the Arctic?

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This post was written by Lesley Anderson, 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

In an earlier blog post we discussed who owns the continent of Antarctica. In the Antarctic, the land mass is surrounded by rough seas and the territorial claims made by different countries are primarily land based. In the northern hemisphere, the Arctic Ocean is surrounded by many countries who each have established maritime boundaries in the Arctic region. The movement and breakup of sea ice in the Arctic concentrates shipping routes in certain areas. These can directly affect wildlife in regions that may remain unprotected.

In order to understand these maritime boundaries, students should first engage hands-on with a map of the Arctic. Provide students with the map and give them time to observe, reflect, and question. Students may notice different countries and names of seas in the Arctic Ocean. If students have never looked at a polar projection map, this is a great opportunity to discuss Mercator projections.

Map of the arctic region highighting the Arctic Ocean and the land masses surrounding it
The Arctic region. United States Central Intelligence Agency, 2008

Guide students through the process of exploring the map. Ask them to:

  • Identify the Arctic Circle on the map.
  • Note how many countries touch the Arctic Circle.
  • What countries are represented on the map by land mass or by territorial claim?

In response to exploring the map, students may ask questions based on the details they’ve noticed, such as:

  • What are the banana-hole, loop-hole, and eastern special regions?
  • Why are the U.S. and Canadian claimed EEZ limits different? What do these limits indicate?
  • How are the shipping lanes impacted by ice at different times of the year?

Next, encourage students to determine which questions can be determined from examining the map and which would require additional research. Discuss how students might go about obtaining new information to answer questions that emerged from exploring the primary source. For example, this primary source depicts maritime boundaries in the Arctic Ocean, but how might this be interesting to students in a high school classroom? For one thing, students may take it for granted that products will arrive from overseas efficiently, but this exercise might encourage students to have an appreciation for the complexity of the shipping routes in the Arctic Ocean.

Students might also engage in a parallel primary source analysis by taking a look at the pair of maps from the Arctic and Antarctic to discuss similarities and differences between the geography and the nationalities of the claimed territories. How might you use these polar maps in your classroom?

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