Hans Island is between a rock and a hard place. Actually, it is the rock, and it's in the hard place: This tiny limestone outcrop lies in the middle of the strait separating Canada from Greenland, inspiring two powerful countries to claim it as their own.
Earth still has lots of territorial disputes like this, from the Falkland Islands to the South and East China seas. But the long struggle for Hans Island is unique, not only because of who's involved and how they've handled it, but also because of how this sometimes cheeky feud — waged mainly with flags, liquor bottles and bluster — could foreshadow more serious geopolitical wrangling in the Arctic.
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The conflict pits Canada against Denmark, which has held Greenland as a Danish territory for most of the past 200 years. Why would two NATO allies fight over an empty rock with little apparent value? Hans Island is only 320 acres (0.5 square miles, or 1.3 square kilometers), and aside from being uninhabited, it has zero trees, virtually no soil, and no known reserves of oil or natural gas.
What it lacks in resources, however, Hans Island makes up for with legal ambiguity. It's the smallest of several islands in the Kennedy Channel — part of the Nares Strait, which separates Greenland from Canada — but it's almost exactly in the middle. Countries can claim territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from their shores under international law, and since Hans Island is in a narrow part of the Nares Strait, it falls within the 12-mile zones of both Canada and Denmark.
Hans Island is located almost exactly halfway between Canada and Greenland. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Hans Island was part of ancient Inuit hunting grounds, but drew little European or American attention until the 1800s. It's named after Greenlandic explorer Hans Hendrik, according to WorldAtlas, for some reason taking only his first name.
Greenland became a Danish territory in 1815, while Canada gained control of its Arctic islands in 1880. Yet due to the limits of 19th-century mapping and the hazards of Arctic travel, neither country showed much interest in Hans Island until the 1920s. That's when Danish explorers finally mapped it, prompting the League of Nations to take up the case. The league's poorly named Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) sided with Denmark in 1933, but that clarity didn't last long.
After World War II, the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations, and its PCIJ gave way to the International Court of Justice. Hans Island was mostly overlooked in the 1950s and '60s, and as time passed, rulings from the defunct PCIJ lost clout. When Denmark and Canada negotiated their maritime borders in 1973, they agreed on a wide range of territorial claims — but Hans Island wasn't one of them.
That's when things went sour, according to a 2011 report by American University's Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE). This has "created tension in Canadian-Danish relations and raised questions regarding Arctic sovereignty," the report notes, although "the level of conflict remains low." Rather than actually fighting, the countries have spent 30 years in a relatively calm, even light-hearted cold war.
A spirited debate
In 1984, Canadian troops made a fateful voyage to Hans Island. In addition to planting Canada's flag in the rock, they also left behind a bottle of Canadian whisky. Just one week later, a Danish official visited the island, replacing Canada's flag with Denmark's and replacing the whisky with a bottle of Danish brandy. He also upped the ante a bit, leaving a note that wryly welcomed visitors to Denmark.
"[W]hen Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of schnapps," Danish diplomat Peter Taksøe-Jensen tells WorldAtlas. "And when Canadian military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian Club and a sign saying 'Welcome to Canada.'"
That may seem petty, but it's more mature than the way many international spats are handled. Still, the dispute over Hans Island isn't a joke to Danish or Canadian leaders. When Canada's defense minister made a surprise trip to the island in 2005, for example, it spurred an angry rebuke from Denmark. "We consider Hans Island to be part of Danish territory," Taksøe-Jensen told Reuters at the time, "and will therefore hand over a complaint about the Canadian minister's unannounced visit."
Breaking the ice
Whether it's with weapons, words or whisky, why is Hans Island worth fighting over at all? It may partly be pride, with neither country wanting to cede territory they see as rightly theirs. But as the ICE report points out, growing interest in this rocky speck is also part of a broader transformation. The Arctic is heating up twice as quickly as Earth overall, opening valuable routes and resources long blockaded by sea ice.
"The potential economic opportunities associated with an ice-free Arctic, such as new shipping lanes and untapped energy resources, have driven nations to assert territorial claims and establish sovereignty," the report says. "As a result, uninhabited Arctic areas like Hans Island are becoming focal points for diplomatic contention."
The island may not hold oil, gas or other riches, but its geography alone could help its stock rise as climate change upends the Arctic. "Although Hans Island does not possess any natural resources, its location in the Nares Strait may place it near the path of future shipping routes," the report adds. "The outcome of the dispute may also influence future Arctic sovereignty disagreements down the road."
Yet despite the rising stakes, there are signs of thawing relations. The foreign ministers of Canada and Denmark reportedly discussed Hans Island in a 2014 meeting, and the issue is widely considered a minor rift. "The current border disagreements between Canada and Denmark are quite small scale and technical," one Arctic affairs consultant told the Arctic Journal in 2014. "Certainly nothing that would harm otherwise good relations." Plus, Russia's increasingly ambitious foreign policy has given the NATO allies a bigger fish to fry, as they — along with the U.S. and other Arctic nations — jockey for position in the fast-changing region.
In the meantime, a group of Arctic experts have pitched an intriguing solution for Hans Island. On Nov. 12, researchers from Canada and Denmark suggested it be turned into a condominium — but not the kind you may be picturing. Rather than building a residential development 123 miles away from the nearest people, this would mean sharing the island similar to how condo residents share their building.
Oversight could be granted to Inuit from Canada and Greenland, the researchers say, or the island could become a nature reserve. This may not resolve all aspects of the dispute, but it does seem better than more snarky notes and liquor.
"There have been tensions in the Arctic in some issues," one of the researchers, University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers, tells the National Post. "The new federal government might see this as a way to signal a change in approach." Denmark's foreign minister has already looked at the proposal, and although any decision may be far off, Byers is optimistic.
"I'm confident he's willing to explore the possibility," he says.