Hans Island — which spans 0.5 square miles or 1.3 square kilometers — is the smallest island in Nares Strait, the body of water that separates Ellesmere Island and Greenland. The island is named after Hans Hendrik, an explorer and translator from Greenland who was part of some American and British Arctic expeditions.
Ellesmere Island is part of Canada, while Greenland is considered as an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark.
The uninhabited Hans Island has no known natural resources and has been called a piece of barren rock. Despite this, Canada and Denmark are locked in a decades-old dispute over it.
Despite being barren, Hans Island is considered a prime spot.
The Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE) report, “Hans Island: An Arctic Border Dispute Between Canada and Denmark,” by Kira Vuille-Kowing details the history of the territorial tiff.
“Climate change is transforming the frozen Arctic landscape. Rising temperatures have accelerated glacial melt and the loss of sea ice at an unprecedented rate, straining the fragile ecosystem.
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 in the region. As a result, uninhabited Arctic areas like Hans Island are becoming focal points for diplomatic contention.” Vuille-Kowing explained.
This NASA image shows why Hans Island’s position is considered strategic.
In claiming ownership of Hans Island, Canada cites the British Adjacent Territories Order, which transferred British Arctic possessions to Canada in 1880.
For its part, Denmark stakes its claim on the island through Greenland. In 1933, the Permanent Court of International Justice — a global court attached to the League of Nations and the predecessor of the International Court of Justice — ruled that Denmark had legal jurisdiction over Greenland.
The so-called “increased tension” (if you can call it that) over Hans Island supposedly began during the 1973 maritime border treaty negotiations between Canada and Denmark. But, as CBC News pointed out, “They were unable to agree which country would have sovereignty over Hans Island. In the end, they decided to work out the question of ownership later.”
They still can’t figure out who really has sovereignty over Hans Island.
The conflict over Hans Island, though, is tagged as a “friendly” territorial dispute. As indicated in Scandinavia and the World, “War ships from both sides patrol the area, and when they encounter each other they show their flags.”
At times, soldiers go down from their ships and plant their flags on the island. They take down the other side’s flag down and raise their own. Sometimes, they also leave bottles of Danish schnapps or Canadian whiskey on the island.
The Hans Island “liquor wars” was first documented in 1984, when Canadian troops visited the island. Aside from planting the Canadian flag, they also left behind a bottle of whisky. Then, a week later, a Danish government official was said to have replaced it the Canadian flag with Denmark’s flag and buried a bottle of Danish brandy at the bottom of the flag pole.
To this day, the territorial dispute remains unresolved. Arctic experts have suggested that the Canada and Denmark should just “split” the island — meaning each country takes over its designated side of the 320-acre island. So far, Canada and Denmark have not yet reached an agreement.
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