Now I Know - Now I Know: Capture the Flag

This is an update, not a re-run! I originally published most of the story below in August of 2011. But over the weekend, the story changed! Canada and Denmark came to an agreement! The last few sentences share the update Thank you to Shinda B., Joseph C., and Margot N. -- all of you emailed me about this.. -- Dan

Capture the Flag

The Nares Strait is the channel of water that separates Greenland from the northernmost Canadian island, Ellesmere Island. (Ellesmere Island is the red-colored land mass pictured here; Greenland is the much larger grey one to its east.) Within the Nares Strait is a half-a-square-mile piece of rock called Hans Island, notable in and of itself for absolutely nothing. No one lives there and while the area, generally, was once an Inuit hunting ground, there is little evidence that Hans Island itself is anything more than a dry rest stop across the Strait. To call Hans Island non-notable would, perhaps, be an understatement. Nevertheless, Hans Island’s legal status is a bigger question: it is subject to conflicting claims, one by Denmark and another by Canada.

Which, of course, requires a colossally silly “war.”

In 1973, Denmark and Canada endeavored to map out the continental shelf dividing Greenland and Ellesmere. They ended up with the map, below, as a result (larger version here), which placed Hans Island collinear with the points creating the boundary:

Unlike Sweden and Finland which came to a creative solution to a similar problem, Canada and Denmark showed no such spark. Instead, the two sides did nothing for a decade, revisiting the question in 1983. In August of that year, the countries jointly agreed to patrol and maintain the area within the Strait. They discussed entering into an agreement with each allowing the other to perform research on the island, but no such agreement was entered into. And unfortunately, the politicians (on both sides) negotiating the agreement were entirely unaware that Dome Petroleum, a Canadian company, had been on Hans Island since 1980, performing ice research. In fact, the Danes may not have known about Dome Petroleum’s use of the island at all — and but for a Canadian minister’s report drafted in 1984, they may never have. After all, there is very little reason to actually visit Hans Island.

However, that report made its way into the Danish press, perhaps sparking a little bit of jingoism, as Tom Høyem, Denmark’s Minister of Greenland, took it upon himself to respond: he chartered a helicopter to Hans Island and placed a flag there, with the message (translated to English) “Welcome to the Danish Island.” And with that, a flag war began.

Over the next twenty years, “forces” from Denmark would attempt to take the island over and over again, each time aiming to leave or repair a Danish flag. In 1988, a patrol ship landed there and built a cairn and flagpole, hoisting the flag of Denmark. Danes added another flag in 1995 and attempted to return to the island in 1997, but the icy conditions prevented the ship from succeeding. (After all, Hans Island is in the Arctic Circle, and in a northern part at that.) In 2002, another ship from the Danish navy made its way to Hans Island, replacing the flags from 1988 (it had gone missing, likely due to heavy winds) and 1995 (which suffered from weather damage). And in 2003, yet another ship replaced the flags yet again. In the interim, Canada had done very little in “retaliation,” landing once in 2001, to conduct a geological survey.

But in 2005, everything went berserk. On July 13, 2005, Canadian soldiers landed on Hans Island and placed a Canadian flag upon its shore. A week later, Canada’s Minister of National Defence visited the island in an effort to demonstrate Canada’s interest in maintaining its sovereignty. (This led to demagoguery such as this op-ed.) The Danes shot back with the threat of a sternly worded letter and an op-ed of their own. Meanwhile, Denmark dispatched to Hans Island the same ship which originally placed its flag on the island in 1988 — to, once again, assert Danish control of this tiny piece of frozen-over rock. (The ship was ordered to not tear down the Canadian flag; simply to ensure the placement of Denmark’s.) The two have since agreed to discuss the fate of the island, and while the two are cooperating on a weather station there, both still laid claim to Hans Island -- as of early 2022. 

On June 10, 2022, that finally changed. It took nearly fifty years, but on that day, the two nations came to an agreement. As the Globe and Mail reported, they basically just split the rock in half: "a border will be drawn across the island, dividing it between the Canadian territory of Nunavut and the semi-autonomous Danish territory of Greenland," making Hans Island one little home to two nations. The agreement, per the Globe and Mail, may be credited to a real war happening today: "The Canadians and Danes plan to unveil the settlement June 14 and celebrate it as an example of how countries can resolve border disputes peacefully even as Russia ignored the rules-based international order and launched a full-scale military assault on Ukraine."

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Bonus fact: According to Danish lore, the Flag of Denmark was given to its people by God himself. As the legend goes, during the Battle of Lyndanisse in 1219, the forces of Denmark were bloodied and nearing defeat. Then, as depicted here, the Danish flag fell from the heavens and was caught by the Danish king, who waved it in front of his troops, rallying them to victory.

From the Archives: Long Division: As cited above, another island with split ownership -- but with a really weird dividing line.
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