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Denmark stakes its claim in the war for the North Pole

In this March 19, 2011 photo released by the U.S. Navy, crew members look out from the USS Connecticut, a Sea Wolf-class nuclear submarine, after it surfaced through ice in the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. and other countries are building up their military presence in the Arctic to help exploit its riches - and protect shifting borders. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy, Cmdr. Christy Hagen)

In time for Christmas, Denmark has claimed Santa Claus's home -- the North Pole. Although it might seem like a joke, Denmark's wish to expand its influence in the Arctic is part of a serious geopolitical struggle: Canada and Russia also claim the spot.

It all comes down to future revenue sources. According to a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey the Arctic Circle might hide between 13 and 30 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources under a thick layer of ice. Climate change and the melting of glaciers are expected to make much of those resources accessible to drilling and mining faster than expected, as two new studies suggested this week. Melting ice could also open new transport routes and benefit those who control them.

But why was Denmark -- a relatively small country, even for European standards -- able to enter the fight with Canada and Russia in the first place? Neither France nor Germany has yet to make such a claim, let alone some of its Nordic neighbors. It's because the Kingdom of Denmark possesses the semi-autonomous country of Greenland, located right next to the Arctic.

International law establishes that all countries are allowed exclusive economic zones within 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. However, countries can also make additional claims for natural resources based on extended continental shelves.

"The Lomonosov ridge is the natural extension of the Greenland shelf... Coincidentally, the North Pole which is a tiny, tiny abstract spot lies in the area," the Associated Press quoted Christian Marcussen, a senior geophysicist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, as saying. This explanation seems to match basic criteria for legal claims.

Denmark's decision to compete with Russia and Canada will make it even harder to reach an agreement over the Arctic.

Almost a decade ago, the U.S., Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Canada asked a U.N. panel to decide which country had sovereignty over the territory and particularly an underwater mountain range called Lomonosov Ridge that runs through the Arctic.

Since then, only Russia and Canada had shown interest in pursuing the panel. Russia is expected to submit its claim next year.

When Danish diplomats presented their own claims to the 21-member U.N. panel on Monday, it did not come as a real surprise to close observers of the dispute.

Diplomatic efforts have repeatedly been disrupted and it is uncertain whether the U.N. will be able to pave the way for a solution. In 2007, a Russian submarine planted a flag beneath the North Pole in a stunning PR-stunt. In September this year, a Russian military spokesperson  acknowledged that the country had begun the construction of new military bases in the region.

At a Youth Camp outside Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in August: "Our interests are concentrated in the Arctic... And of course we should pay more attention to issues of development of the Arctic and the strengthening of our position [there]." Canada and Norway have also shifted military resources to the north.

Denmark might not exclusively be interested in the resources the North Pole region has so far concealed, though.

The U.N. claim was also closely monitored in Greenland, where separatist sentiments have risen recently. "There's a strong push for independence in Greenland, and Denmark wants to show it's capable of taking its interest into account," Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen of Denmark's Syddansk University told the BBC.

The map in this post has been updated.