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Nobody lives there. It's tiny and frigid, and experts can't even agree on how it got its name.

But Hans Island, a barren knoll in the high Arctic, is now the centre of a full-fledged diplomatic tiff after Defence Minister Bill Graham quietly set foot there last week to the chagrin of the government of Denmark.

Danish officials in Copenhagen issued an official note of protest to Canada's ambassador yesterday after learning of Mr. Graham's decision to plunk down on the island and harden Canada's claim over it.

"We maintain the position that according to the normal principles of international law, that this is Danish territory," said Poal Erik Dam Kristensen about the island, located in the high north between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, which is part of Denmark.

"We would like to maintain what was the modus vivendi, that if one of the parties visited the island, the party notifies the other party beforehand."

Mr. Graham took a helicopter onto the island last Wednesday, a week or so after members of Canada's military planted a Canadian flag there and erected an Inuit-style stone marker known as an inukshuk. Danish officials have also in the past landed on the island, erecting their own stone cairns.

The offshore boundary between the two nations was drawn in 1973, but excluded the island, which lies in the middle of a channel about five kilometres wide.

Mr. Graham's visit was an effort to assert claims of ownership over the island in the wake of a new policy designed to increase Canadian activity in the Arctic to protect sovereignty.

Mr. Kristensen said yesterday that the Danes believe the island is important because it could influence the interests of native groups from both countries, who have traditionally hunted marine mammals in the area.

He hastened to add, however, that the matter is not a major irritant between the two countries.

"This is not a dramatic issue."

The Danes, he said, would like to see the issue dealt with through country-to-country negotiation.

A spokesman for Canada's Foreign Affairs Department said Canada does not need to inform Denmark of its intention to land on the island because officials consider it to be Canadian.

"We have reiterated to them our own position, which is, given the fact that Hans Island is part of Canadian territory, we don't have to give prior notification," Reynald Doiron said.

Rob Huebert, a political scientist with the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, said Mr. Graham's move is important because it demonstrates Canada's seriousness in asserting sovereignty in the area. Without such actions, other nations might be emboldened to push their own claims to the Arctic.

"We are drawing the line in the sand," he said.

The island itself is barren and inhospitable, strewn with boulders left behind by glaciers, says a Canadian geologist who has visited it twice.

"Geologically, it's not a very exciting island," Chris Harrison said. "It's a pretty bare landscape. A very hostile environment, in terms of climate."

Dr. Harrison spent a few hours there during visits in 2000 and 2001. He said that, from a purely geological point of view, it looks more like Greenland than Ellesmere Island.

Although little more than one square kilometre in size, the island has become the subject of a dispute that experts say could rise as global warming begins to melt the polar ice caps and the area becomes increasingly navigable.

Dr. Harrison said the border dispute is also interesting because, in theory, the line could be drawn across the island. That would make it a place "where you can walk from North America to Europe."

There is also the possibility of natural resources in the area.

The region remained almost completely unexplored by Europeans up until the early 19th century, although Inuit from both nations are said to have hunted there for many years. Prof. Huebert said the origin of the island's name is not clear, although it may be named for a native guide.

He added that the claim is important for Denmark's relationship with Greenland. Failing to protect the territory of Greenland might cause political difficulties for Denmark among Greenlanders searching for more autonomy.

He also predicted the Danes will now send a ship to the island to solidify their own claims.

"This will escalate."

With a report from Oliver Moore