CASR – Canadian American Strategic Review – Arctic Sovereignty

CASR | Arctic Sovereignty Browse | Arctic Sovereignty Index | Arctic Empires Index
Arctic Sovereignty – Oil & Gas Exploration – Shipping Lanes – October 2007

Carving Up the Arctic Seabed – Meridian Method or Sector Solution?

Edited excerpts from an article published by The New York Times newspaper [1]
Two Ways to Share the Arctic – the New 'Centre of the World' for Northern Nations


                      1)  The Meridian Method                                   2)  The Sector Solution
            Supported by Canada and Denmark                   Supported by Norway and Russia




[CASR Editor: For ancient Rome, the Mediterranean was the sea at the centre of  the world. Now, the Arctic has become the centre for the prosperous northern nations. It is the repository of the most valuable strategic resources found on earth – oil, natural gas, diamonds, unspoilt vistas for city-dwellers seeking solitude and spendor, and  frozen stores of  clean, fresh water. With a kitty of  this size, even India and China are trying to buy themselves a place at the table.

Apparently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is fully aware that the true wealth of our nation lies north of the Arctic Circle. Mr. Harper recently moved Jim Prentice, his quietly effective Minister of Northern Affairs, to a more important, more senior portfolio: Industry Canada. But one thing must be settled before we can safely and securely exploit the resources of our Arctic regions. Our claims to an 'extended' exclusive economic zone must be accepted by the commission set up by the United Nations to adjudicate the terms laid out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We are in competition with some of our closest allies: Denmark, which has already ratified UNCLOS, and the United States, which has not.

On the other side of the Arctic lies our greatest competitor, Russia, a country which has all the same natural resources as Canada, only more of them. Coupled with this abundance of raw materials, is Russia's long experience with polar exploration, and with the industrial extraction, refining, and export of natural resources in the most difficult climates. Russia's foreign markets includes the EU and India – our market is primarily the United States. We live in interesting times. What follows are excerpts from an article that appeared in The New York Times in 2005.]




The US , Canada , Denmark  (via Greenland) ,  Norway , and  Russia  –  All Stake Claims

The [ new claims on Arctic territory ] are already real enough for the four million people within the Arctic Circle, including about 150,000 Inuit. "As long as it's ice," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, leader of a transnational Inuit group, "nobody cares except us, because we hunt and fish and travel on that ice. However, the minute it starts to thaw and becomes water, then the whole world is interested." A look at a map of  the globe, with the North Pole at its centre, explains why this new frontier matters. Some countries that one might think of as being half a world apart appear as startlingly close neighbours ... and, [as with all neighbours], the fences matter.

The Commission on the Limits of  the Continental Shelf  will assess the national claims

The Commission is composed of experts appointed by those countries that have already ratified the [UN Law of  the Sea] treaty. This commission will draw the boundaries based on geological studies of the seabed itself. A country's exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, generally extends 200 nm [370 km or 230 statute miles] from its shores. But, under Article 76 of UNCLOS, that zone can be extended. Each nation must convince other parties to the treaty that there is a 'natural prolongation' of its shelf beyond the 200-mile limit.

The shelf is the relatively shallow extension of the continental landmass to the point where the bottom drops into the oceanic abyss. But in many places, the drop-off is a long, gentle slope. In other places, the shelf is connected to submerged ridges that, if precisely mapped, might add thousands of square miles to a country's exploitable seabed. With only fragments of the Arctic surveyed – by icebreaker or nuclear submarine – various countries are now mounting new mapping expeditions to claim the most territory possible.

Denmark and Canada conduct a joint seabed mapping project of uncharted parts of the Arctic

In June 2006, Denmark and Canada announced that they would conduct a joint surveying project of uncharted parts of the Arctic Ocean near their coasts [north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland. For more details and images from this 2007 expedition, visit the website
of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.]

The Arctic Ocean is where experts foresee the most conflict. Only there do the boundaries of five nations – Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States – converge, the way sections of an orange meet at the stem. (The three other northern nations, Iceland, Sweden and Finland, do not have coasts on the Arctic Ocean.)

Increasingly, big corporations, the eight countries with Arctic footholds, and other nations farther south are betting on the possibility of a great transformation. Energy-hungry China [and India have] set up research stations on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. China has twice deployed its icebreaker Snow Dragon, which normally works in Antarctica, to northern waters to conduct climate research. "The area does get to be a bit crowded," said Peter Croker, chairman of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which assesses the claims.

The United States would like to claim a swath of the Arctic Seabed larger than California

The US government finances geological survey work, but it has not made any definitive move toward staking its claim [because the US has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea]. "We need to be in the game, at the table, talking about fisheries management, mineral extraction, freedom of navigation," said Admiral James D. Watkins, a retired chief of naval operations who is chairman of the United States Commission on Ocean Policy.

The University of New Hampshire in Durham is the home of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. Scientists are studying sonar scans of the seabed from a 2002 expedition on the United States Coast Guard icebreaker [USCGC Healy] in waters north of  Barrow, Alaska. Larry Mayer, the Center's director, gave one journalist a joystick-driven, virtual tour of the seabed two miles [3.2 km] beneath the ice. The ocean appeared on a wall-size screen as a basin with ridges and valleys dropping into the depths around the edges, representing oceanographers' best guess at the topography before their [ most recent ] expedition.

Then Dr. Mayer pushed a button, adding depth data from the new survey, which had used innovative multibeam sonar. Suddenly a giant underwater mountain sprouted up 10,000 feet where the old chart had shown only a vague bump. "That's the new state of our knowledge," said Dr. Mayer, who named the undersea mountain, Healy, after the US icebreaker. Such physical features matter enormously to nations seeking to expand their undersea territory.

Treaty or no, territorial disputes ultimately imply questions about a country's ability to defend its interests. Here, too, the United States has shown little urgency. Canada has acted more aggressively to ensure its sovereignty over a fast-changing domain that it had long neglected. Three years ago, Canada began patrolling the most remote Arctic reaches with [the Canadian Rangers] Army Reservists [...] a mostly Inuit force [in this area] numbering about 1500 men.

[Update: PM Harper wants to increase the number of  Canadian Rangers by at least 900.]

Canada is also buying three new ships to patrol the Northwest Passage. The Canadian fleet of Twin Otters, the primary surveillance and transport planes in the north since the 1960s, will be replaced [or augmented] with bigger, faster transports. Canada's aim is to tighten control of its territory, and to establish a strong posture in any future talks about Arctic Sovereignty.



[1] First published in The New York Times on 10 Oct 2005. Authors Clifford Krauss reported from Canada, Steven Lee Myers from Russia, Andrew C. Revkin from New Hampshire and Washington, and Simon Romero from Norway. Craig Duff contributed reporting from Canada, Norway, Russia and Alaska.



CASR | Arctic Sovereignty Browse | Arctic Sovereignty Index | Arctic Empires Index