What’s the North Pole Worth, Anyways? We Did the Math

Aug 25, 2014 at 8:17 AM ET

Natural resources are like catnip for power- and cash-hungry governments, which is why a number of countries have battled over the North Pole for decades. Beneath the frozen tundra bordered by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States lies some 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas, and 15 percent of its untapped oil.

And each of those countries is hell-bent on getting the biggest slice of the pie.

Perhaps the most hotly contested area is an undersea region called the Lomonosov Ridge, which spans 1,800 miles and divides the Amerasian and Eurasian basins. Both Canada and Russia claim that resource-rich ridge is a natural extension of their continental shelves. Russia’s 2001 claim to the Ridge was rejected by the United Nations (the governing body that decides such matters), but that didn’t stop the country from planting its flag on the North Pole in 2007.

It is the Canucks, however, who have made the most recent play for the North Pole. In December, Canada filed an application with the U.N. arguing that the North Pole falls within Canadian territory, and this month it launched two ice-breaking ships with the mission of gathering scientific data to support its claim. The Canadian government has reportedly spent nearly $200 million in such expeditions as part of its quest for Arctic sovereignty.

All this begs the question: Just how much is the North Pole actually worth?

The best estimate of what lies under the North Pole and the surrounding upper Arctic comes from a 2008 study of the area conducted by a team of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey. The agency believes that there are about 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic. Multiply those quantities by the 52-week price highs for the commodities ($105.55 per barrel for oil and $4.87 per million BTU for natural gas), and the Arctic reserves of oil and gas could be worth a whopping $9.1 trillion and $8.1 trillion, respectively.

Add those figures up, and the northern expanse could be worth $17.2 trillion in crude oil and natural gas alone… and that’s not even counting other resources which be hiding under those subterranean seabeds (think uranium, for example).

That’s bigger than the entire U.S. economy.

That’s a lot of green buried under all that white snow and ice. Which means this international battle over the upper Arctic is only going to—pardon the pun, climate warming denialists—heat up.

But how does the U.N. actually decide which countries own what? It’s complicated—which is what makes the ownership of the Arctic such a contentious international issue. The Convention of the Law of the Sea, also known as the constitution of the oceans, says that all countries are entitled to a continental shelf of up to 200 nautical miles and, in turn, rights over the natural resources from the seabeds extending from their continental shelves. This is why Canada, Russia and the rest are all scrambling to gather scientific data that proves the North Pole extends from the continental shelves over which they have sovereignty. Basically, they need to map the ocean floor and hope the data comes out in their favor.

How does the Arctic match up with other regions in the world when it comes to natural riches? Below is an infographic that answers that question, based on data from British Petroleum’s Statistical Review of World Energy report. The chart is live, so mouse over the data to get a detailed picture of the data. Don’t forget to sound off below in the comments area, or on our Facebook page.