Anchorage Daily News: Underwater mapping might boost Arctic claims
A joint U.S.-Canada exploration of the Arctic is uncovering evidence that could boost the two countries' claims to lucrative oil and gas resources under the sea floor.
Since early August, icebreakers from the two countries have criss-crossed icy areas of the Beaufort Sea, measuring how far the continental shelf extends into the Arctic.
Nations routinely claim special rights within 200 nautical miles of their coasts, but their reach can go beyond that if they can prove to the United Nations that the continental shelf -- the underwater portion of the continent -- extends beyond that limit.
The farther the shelf extends, the more ocean floor that nations can claim: either exploiting or protecting it from development. The Arctic is thought to have billions of barrels worth of undiscovered oil and a third of the world's undiscovered gas, and the ice cap's retreat in recent years has heightened interest in both development and conservation.
The continental shelf ends quickly off Alaska's northeast coast but extends for hundreds of miles off Alaska's northwest and western coast. The shelf also extends off Canadian islands in the Arctic.
That means, in theory, that the United States and Canada could stake claims to a large swath of the Arctic sea floor, asserting exclusive control of minerals and creatures living there. Russia and Norway already have staked claims to extended areas of the Arctic, though the United Nations has not yet recognized Russia's claim.
For now, any claim the United States might stake to the continental shelf would lack international recognition because the United States has not ratified the international Law of the Sea treaty. Members of the Alaska congressional delegation have long supported ratification of the treaty.
The researchers aboard the two icebreakers haven't had time to examine their new data yet. But early indications show large accumulations of sediment on the northern edges, hinting that the shelf -- and thus the countries' borders -- extends farther than previously known, said Jacob Verhoef, program director for Natural Resources Canada.
The data being collected by the ships during their 41-day mission will keep scientists busy for many years, Margaret Hayes, chair of the State Department's U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Task Force, said Thursday. This year's voyage ends next Wednesday.
Not all of the researchers' data collection relates to geopolitics. They are collecting water-quality samples, for example.
Also, during the trip Christine Hedge, an Indiana middle-school teacher aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy, found the first indications of something unusual: A large formation seemed to be jutting from the flat seafloor 8,700 feet deep. Further examination showed that it was a mountain almost 3,600 feet high, 14 miles long and four miles wide. It's about 700 miles north of Alaska, according to the State Department.
"It's elongated, more ridge-shaped and flat on the top," said Canadian chief scientist David Mosher, who was on the other icebreaker, the Louis S. St-Laurent. Further examinations of the mountain may someday help explain the history of the Arctic Ocean, he said.
Many miles away, the St-Laurent crew noticed another curiosity: something that could be a buried and extinct underwater volcano but also might just be a ridge, Mosher said.
TWO BIRDS, ONE STONE
The joint survey has saved both countries millions of dollars in duplicated effort to break through the ice cap and gather data, Verhoef said.
The Healy is collecting bathymetric data -- revealing the depth and contour of the ocean floor -- while the St-Laurent collects seismic data. One ship breaks the ice while the other collects data, said Verhoef, calling the collaboration "fantastic."
The joint sailings in the Arctic began last year and will continue through next year. This summer, the icebreakers have followed a route that extends north of the U.S.-Canada border toward the North Pole, with some emphasis on ridges that extend toward the pole far north of Barrow.
The Arctic is not the only location where the United States might claim an extended continental shelf. Other places include the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, the western end of the Aleutian Islands, the Gulf of Mexico and areas off the Pacific Northwest and California coast.
The area at stake is about twice the size of California, with about half of that off Alaska, according to staff from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office.
Unless the United States joins the Law of the Sea treaty convention, it cannot submit a sovereign claim to the United Nations; and without approval from the United Nations, the U.S. claim to such offshore regions would not be recognized by other countries, according to the Murkowski staff.
Canada ratified the treaty in 2003 and has until 2013 to submit its claim, according to Canadian officials.
If the United States joins the treaty convention, it also will have 10 years to submit a claim to the United Nations.
ADN CORRECTION -- September 14, 2009
A front-page story Friday about mapping the Arctic seabed mischaracterized a comment from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowksi's office about how nations present claims to the extended continental shelf. The story said the United Nations approves or denies claims. Murkowski's office said the nations submit claims to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. That is an agency created under the auspices of the United Nations.
By: By Elizabeth Bluemink. Originally published by the Anchorage Daily News on September 10, 2009
Source: Reward could be a bonanza in resources