For nearly a century, Canada and Denmark have been locked in a bitter dispute – all because of a barren hunk of land in the icy Arctic channel near Greenland. Hans Island has no inhabitants, no vegetation, and measures less than a mile in diameter. The militaries of both countries periodically visit to remove the other side’s flag and leave a bottle of Danish schnapps or Canadian whiskey.
Located in the center of the Kennedy Channel of the Nares Strait – the strait that separates Ellesmere Island from northern Greenland and connects Baffin Bay with the Lincoln Sea. Hans Island is the smallest of three islands located in Kennedy Channel.
The island is named after Hans Hendrik, whose native Greenlandic name was Suersaq. Hendrik was an Arctic explorer and translator who worked on the American and British Arctic expeditions of Elisha Kent Kane, Charles Francis Hall, Isaac Israel Hayes and George Strong Nares, from 1853 to 1876.
In 1973 geologists and hydrographers couldn’t agree on how to map the island in half, and it has been the center of a “cold war” ever since.
The Hans Island “liquor wars” were first documented in 1984 when Canadian troops visited the island. Aside from planting the Canadian flag, they also left behind a bottle of whiskey. Then a week later, a Danish government official was said to have replaced it the Canadian flag with the Danmark’s flag and buried a bottle of Danish brandy at the bottom of the flag pole.
Whether it’s with weapons, words or whiskey, why is Hans Island worth fighting over at all? It may partly be pride, with neither country wanting to cede territory they see as rightly theirs. But as the ICE report points out, growing interest in this rocky speck is also part of a broader transformation. The Arctic is heating up twice as quickly as Earth overall, opening valuable routes and resources long blockaded by sea ice.
Since 2005, the countries have said they will negotiate the issue and look for a solution.
The island may not hold oil, gas or other riches, but its geography alone could help its stock rise as climate change upends the Arctic. Still, both countries are part of NATO, and they are supposed to be on the same team – especially with the Russian military lurking in the neighborhood.
Solutions are already on the table. Today, Arctic experts from both Canada and Denmark are presenting a proposal for the countries to put up a condo on the island that they would share.
No matter what happens, this Canadian – Danish “war” may be the cutest dispute in history.