Five nations, one Arctic

Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway lay claim to parts of the Arctic. It’s not a trivial matter -30 per cent of the world’s gas reserves, 13 per cent of oil reserves, as well as iron and rare earth minerals lay beneath the rapidly melting icecap.

image: Athropolis

Science can inform the decision as to who owns what, and diplomacy could play a role as long as the hotheads stay out of the way.

Cooperation has been a hallmark of Arctic operations in the past in areas of search and rescue and military coordination. But that was when the Arctic was covered with an impenetrable sheet of ice, out of sight, out of mind.

Who owned the seabed of the under Earth’s oceans used to be easy. In the 1600s, nations extended their territory the distance that a cannon ball could be shot (three miles).

As the resources of the seas began to be exploited some nations ignored the three-mile limit. To resolve the matter, 160 countries agreed to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. Sovereign rights could then be extended to 200 nautical miles from their shoreline; and even beyond that if nations could present detailed geologic evidence of the extensions of their continental shelves.

Continental shelves are the areas that stretch out under relatively shallow waters before dropping into the deep sea. However, the rights to the continental shelves apply only to the seabed, not the waters above. Fishing and navigation in those waters remain open.

So far, the determination of sovereign rights to the seabed is fairly straightforward. The tricky part is determining exactly where the continental shelf ends and the deep sea floor begins. Canadian geophysicist David Moser, formerly from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia and now professor at the University of New Hampshire, says: “that’s where all the science is (Scientific American, August, 2019).”

An international body, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), has been set up to review claims. The CLCS has received claims from Canada, Russia and Denmark that overlap. The U.S. isn’t expected to make a claim until 2022 but it will likely overlap with Canada’s claim in different area. It’s going to take years to sort it out. And the U.S. claim is weakened by the fact that they never signed UNCLOS although they are cooperating with the agency so far, but who knows how much longer with the current U.S. administration?

As if things weren’t complicated enough, another factor is muddying the waters. UNCLOS allows for nations to extend sovereignty beyond continental shelves to ridges. UNCLOS doesn’t define exactly what a ridge is other than a wide band extending from continental shelf.

One of those ridges, the Lomonosov Ridge, is massive. It divides the Arctic Ocean in half, stretching all the way from Russia to Canada’s Ellesmere Island and next to Greenland. All three countries have made claims on the Lomonosov Ridge.

It’s going to take years to sort through the science. Where the science is unclear, a diplomatic resolution is required. Meanwhile political leaders must be patient.

Another complication is the belligerence of the current U.S. administration. In June, the U.S. Department of Defense warns of an “era of strategic completion,” and “a potential avenue for . . . aggression” in the Arctic.

The rapidly-warming warming of the Arctic is enough of a problem without the addition of hot rhetoric.