April 9, 2004

Greenland, Canada squabbling over pet rock

Hans Island: no oil, no minerals, but lots of geology


Keith Dewing stands on Hans Island, the subject of a territorial dispute between Canada and Greenland. (PHOTO BY CHRIS HARRISON, GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA)

The rocky, wind-swept Hans Island is an interesting place for geologists, but you wouldn't want to spend much time on it.

The island has been in the news recently, with Canada and Denmark each defending territorial claims to Hans Island, located in the Nares Strait, between northern Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Three years ago, Keith Dewing and Chris Harrison, geologists with the Geological Survey of Canada who were mapping northern Ellesmere Island, flew by helicopter to Hans Island.

"It's out in the middle of the ocean. It really is halfway from Canada to Greenland. It's roughly circular, straight-sided up from the water, sloping off to the Greenland side. It's pretty much flat on top, and there's some boulders scattered around," Dewing said in an interview from Calgary. "It's been scraped pretty much clean."

Hans Island is interesting to geologists because it's part of a mountain chain that starts in the Svalbard Islands off Norway, runs through Greenland, and pokes out again in Ellesmere Island.

"Geologically, it's very Greenlandy," Dewing said. "It's flat - it looks like Greenland, but there are other bits of Greenland plate in Canada. Hopefully, the boundaries aren't decided on geology. Even though it looks like Greenland, there are even parts of Canada that look like Greenland."

Dewing says it's unlikely that the island will prove to be a treasure trove of minerals or underwater oil reserves for either nation.

"There's some ancient reefs up there and there's probably one of them associated with Hans Island. It could conceivably contain oil, but that is such a far-fetched, unproveable statement now," Dewing said.

"On the Greenland side there are no indication of any oil in any of those reefs. On the Canadian side there's no indication of any oil in any of those reefs. I guess that's the only potential, that there's a reef there and it's chock full of oil, but it's a remote possibility."

While on Hans Island, Dewing remembers seeing a flagpole - with no flag, some little cairns and a ragged-looking hut.

"We were on our way from A to B. We needed some samples, so we stopped off, took a couple of chunks of rock and were off," Dewing said. "We try not to work in Danish territory. We went there on the assumption that it was Canadian territory. Our topographic maps said it was part of Canada. We went there confident that it was part of Canada to take our samples."

To resolve the dispute over who has claim to the island, Dewing suggests Canada and Denmark share Hans Island, which would then be half Nunavut, half Greenland - and a tourist attraction in its own right.

"They should put the border right in the middle. That would be the only place in North America where you could touch Canada and Europe," suggested Dewing.