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:
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.
Updated, June 13, 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.”
From the Archives: Long Division: As cited above, another island with split ownership — but with a really weird dividing line.
Related: An inflatable iceberg. In case you have $6,000 (yes, six thousand dollars) lying around.