Thursday, August 11, 2005

Hans Across the Water

Things are getting hot in the Arctic. Denmark, which claims to own a 1.3 square kilometre hunk of rock called Hans Island between the coast of Greenland and Ellesmere Island in the Nares Strait, has sent a warship to the region to protect the island from further incursions by the Canadian military. The fact that there would barely be room on the island for both Canadian and Danish personnel to engage in a rousing game of arm wrestling, much less actual fighting, is of no matter. The Danes claim the rock as their property, and Canada will be scuppered if it will conceded the land without a fight – or at least a good shoving match.
Comparisons have been sombrely drawn between the rising tensions around who owns Hans Island, and the war in the Falklands – also known as the Maldives – in 1982. But the comparison does not stand up. For one thing, the Falklands have sheep and grass and houses and people. Hans Island has lichen – and very little lichen at that. For another, the world powers that clashed over the Falklands were England and Argentina, both countries with attitude, and the military might to back that attitude. The countries locked in a diplomatic spat over an Arctic island that doesn’t even have guano on it are Canada and Denmark, countries better known for trying to get the rest of the world to calm down than for flexing their own military might.
Having Canada and Denmark sword rattling at each other over Hans Island is a bit like having a couple of eight-graders at computer camp challenging each other to a pillow fight over who gets the top bunk: it really doesn’t matter, and the other kids find the posturing funny.
There has, of course, been no lack of experts getting up on television to talk about the gravity of this situation, and why we should all stop snickering and take this seriously. Apparently, and get this, Hans Island is important because when global warming melts all that nasty ice up there and opens up the Northwest passage to commercial activity, whoever owns Hans Island will control the passage – a sort of Gibraltar of the far north, without the monkeys, of course.
What the experts have neglected to consider is that, for one thing, Hans is too small to allow either country to build a decent gun emplacement there, and for another, when global warming has melted all that ice, Hans Island, which is barely a rocky bubble over the ice as it is, will be in all likelihood be under several feet of water, and Canada and Denmark and all the other countries with people living along shorelines will have other things to worry about, such as how to pump the Atlantic out of their basements.
The Danes and their gunboat are planning to replace a Danish flag which had “fallen over” at about the same time Canadian Minister of Defence Graham Bill had himself helicoptered to the Island to place a Canadian flag there – possibly the island was not big enough for both flags. Of course, Minister Graham is not entirely to blame for igniting this latest round of tiffing over ownership of the island. In 1984, Denmark's minister of Greenland affairs raised a Danish flag on the island. He then buried a bottle of brandy at the base of the flagpole and left a note saying "Welcome to the Danish island." Presumably the bottle was intended as bait to lure Canadian government officials there, and render them incapable of fighting. Perhaps Minister Graham was there in search of ice cubes.
It makes you wonder what the Danes are planning to leave there during this, their latest visit. A large cask of blue cheese and herring? Have those people no sense of decency? Do they not know that the Canadian military is not prepared for biological warfare?
Meanwhile, tens of people around the globe are holding their collective breath, wondering how this will all turn out.
In a world which seems determined to drive itself to madness through violence and greed, we have to be grateful to the Danes and the Canadians for providing a little comic relief during such a long, hot and smoggy Canadian summer. Good for them.

Otte Rosenkrantz is an independent journalist, and a proud Canadian of equally proud Danish heritage. He hopes to visit Hans Island before the ice melts.
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