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Monday, September 15, 2008

Energy at the North Pole

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy : Photo by NOAA

Ever since Russia planted a flag under the North Pole last year, the issue of sovereign rights under an increasingly slushy arctic has tensed. In a race to claim ownership of some of the arctic seabed, a two-ship caravan of Canadian and U.S. scientists is sailing around the Arctic Ocean right now. Their mission, which will last from September 6th to October 1st, is to measure the seabed and the continental margins in an attempt to solidify our possible rights over the far north—an area that will become accessible to oil drilling and mining as the earth warms and arctic ice melts.

PopSci reported a few months ago on a map from Durham University researchers, showing the complicated web of conflicting arctic claims. At least six nations could own part of the arctic. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (what a mouthful), nations own the rights 200 meters out from the edge of their continental shelf—not the exposed coast, but the undersea lip of the continent. Unfortunately, there is no geophysical consensus on where those shelf edges are, hence this joint voyage.

The U.S. ship, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy will use a multi-beam echo sounder to map the sea floor, sending out sound pulses, which return at different times depending on the depth. The Canadian ship, the Louis S. St. Laurent will follow doing complementary measurements of the sub-sea floor. The hope is that the whole of the arctic does not in fact belong to Russia, and that we, or Canada might own a piece of the pie as well. Go team.

Worth a Look: Jessica Roberston, a USGS PR rep onboard the Healy is keeping a log of the mission with notes and photos, along with an updated map of the ship’s location at


CaitlynA September 15, 2008 at 2:02 PM  

Regarding rights over the continental shelf, under the law of the sea convention each coastal state has rights over the ocean floor, regardless of whether it is the continental shelf or deep ocean floor, to a distance of 200 nautical miles. Beyond 200 nm the limit of jurisdiction is determined by a formula that determines the legal definition of the continental shelf not at the edge of the extension of the submerged continental crust but near the edge of the continental rise. Generally there is an outer limit of 350 nm, but in certain cases the limit is indefinite. Each nation is responsible for providing scientific data to support the boundary they propose to draw for their shelf. If an international committee of experts in marine geology (the "Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf") confirms that the data supports the boundary, then it is automatically recognized by all parties to the Convention.

One of the main goals of the Healy cruise is to determine whether the Chukchi Plateau is a natural extension of the continental shelf and meets other criteria that would allow the US to claim it beyond the 350nm limit.

In addition, if a claim of one country overlaps with the claim of another, they may resolve the overlap bi-laterally or may turn to the dispute settlement provisions of the convention.

Also, we already have an agreement with Russia that sets a boundary between our territories and theirs that will apply to the continental shelf as well - in fact, the Russian claim is consistent with that agreement and there is no concern about US-Russian conflicting claims.

It is important to keep in mind that this only applies to national control over the seabed. Fishery jurisdiction ends at 200nm, and authority over navigation ends at the territorial sea (12nm) except that in ice covered areas the coastal state may establish regulations for safety and to protect against pollution (this provision was particularly important to Canada). The chart from Durham University doesn't make this clear to the novice.

Anonymous September 15, 2008 at 9:55 PM  

They also say on the Arctic Chronicles website (the one you've got linked) that they're going to have video as well. That should be very interesting!