Why Are Canada and Denmark Fighting Over a Tiny Arctic Island?

Canada and Denmark have been locked in a bitter dispute—all because of a barren hunk of land in the icy arctic channel near Greenland. Hans Island has no inhabitants, no vegetation, and measures less than a mile in diameter. Still, both nations adamantly lay claim to the land, sparking a unique set of diplomatic tensions: “The militaries of both countries periodically visit to remove the other guy’s flag and leave a bottle of Danish schnapps or Canadian whiskey,” Reddit user 2nie shared with the Today I Learned community.

According to the World Atlas, the passive-aggressive liquor exchange has been ongoing since the mid-’80s, but the conflict has flared in the past decade. In 2004, Canada increased their defense spending citing concerns about Hans Island. The move sparked an outcry from Danish officials.

CC BY-SA 3.0/Toubletap

The following year, Canada’s defense minister accompanied the Canadian military on a trip to Hans to solidify Canadian control.

“Our view is that it’s part of Canada and we continue to be there, to go there, the Danes go there as well and we are making sure that the Danes know that this part of the Canadian territory,” he told reporters at the time.

Danish officials disagreed.

“We consider Hans Island to be part of Danish territory and will therefore hand over a complaint about the Canadian minister’s unannounced visit,” stated Peter Taksoe-Jensen, head of the department of International Public Law at Denmark’s Foreign Ministry responded.

NASA World Wind
NASA World Wind

The two nations still haven’t resolved the issue. According to a 2005 agreement, neither can venture to the island without first informing the other. However, global warming is changing the arctic climate and opening up the possibility of new economic opportunities in the area—not to mention added urgency to end the dispute once and for all.

Although there aren’t any natural resources on Hans itself, the melting arctic ice could open up new shipping lanes, fisheries, and oil and natural gas reserves in the region, making ownership of the land strategically valuable.

Still, both countries are part of NATO and they are supposed to be on the same team—especially with the Russian military lurking in the neighborhood.

According to a 2011 report from American University, NATO presence in the Arctic will be increasingly important, and an ongoing conflict between the two countries could pose a problem—but it could also prompt them to come together:

“What concerns both countries is a pro-active and assertive Russia in Arctic seeking to capitalize on oil and fishing rights. This common threat, has the potential to bolster bilateral ties between Canada and Denmark, and expedite a resolution, in order to get both nations on the same page before Russian Arctic questions need answering.”

Solutions are already on the table. Today, arctic experts from both Canada and Denmark are presenting a proposal for the countries to put up a condo on the island—that they would share.

“It would resolve a long-standing dispute that, although insignificant, has some small potential to cause friction in the future,” Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia international law professor told The Toronto Star. Plans to split the island have failed in the past, but Byers believes this time things will be different.

Even if they do reach an agreement, however, the news of their whiskey war has prompted redditors to hatch a plan of their own—soon there might be new flags flying on Hans.

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