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Shelf watch 2013: Canada set to claim massive new seabed territory

By Michelle Zilio | Jan 5, 2013 12:01

After ten years of mapping and research, Canada is set to claim to a massive new portion of seabed in 2013. Canadian researchers are in the final stages of preparing the countrys United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf submission to claim offshore seabed, due in December 2013. According to Jacob Verhoef, the Natural Resources Canada geologist leading Canadas submission, the proposal is expected to make claim to roughly 1.75 million square kilometres of seabed, equivalent to 20 per cent of Canadas land mass. To put it in perspective, its three prairie provinces size. Its huge, said Verhoef, who is based in Halifax.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country is entitled to the seabed and the resources under it within 200 nautical miles, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, of its coastline or until the continental margin, which is where continental shelf ends and the ocean floor begins. The sovereignty of the extended shelf that stretches beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone must be agreed upon in the UNCLOS, which oversees the Commission. By signing the UNCLOS in 2003, Canada committed to submitting its

proposal to the define its continental margin by 2013. According to Verhoef, the continental margin in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans appear to extend beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone, and, thus, these areas were the focus of his teams research. But what is the significance of determining the ownership of seabed hundreds of kilometres beyond Canadas coastlines, which lies under icy waters that are nearly impossible to navigate? For Verhoef, theres two reasons. First, Canada made a commitment to meet its Commission deadline in 2013. The second thing is there is the potential for oil and gas but we dont know too much about it because we have not been there. We have not look at it carefully, said Verhoef. Verhoef said there is not many current economic potential to exploring deep Arctic resource because it is simply too difficult to do research in the area difficulty he experience firsthand leading the Commission research from 2007 to 2011. Honestly it was a real challenge. For a couple of reasons. Simply looking at the Arctic, the remoteness. Also Canada has one of the toughest areas in the Arctic if you look at ice conditions, said Verhoef. In fact, in some extended areas such as the region north of Ellesmere Island, Verhoefs team could not get icebreakers through the ice for research. So, they had to use an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. The instrument, which is seven metres long, is battery operated and can follow the see floor at depths of 5,000 metres below the surface. Researching the claim According to Verhoef, two types of information were needed to determine how far Canadas continental shelf extends.

First, researchers measured the depths and the shape of the seafloor to determine where the seabed drops consistently below the depth of 2,500 metres. Verhoef said that since much of the deep Arctic seafloor had never been closely examined, his team made some discoveries during their research. There was a whole area which was to some extent unknown. And just to give you an example they found a (underwater mountain range) 1,100 metres high, 35 kilometres long and it was never seen before. I cant imagine that on this planet, there is something that big that has never been seen before, said Verhoef. The second way a country can claim extended seabed is to prove there is a particular thickness of sediment on the seafloor through the collection of seismic data. In order to qualify as the extended continental shelf, the sediments thickness must be at least 1 per cent of the shortest distance from the foot of the continental slope (the final area before the drop off into the ocean floor). For this type of research, heavy icebreakers like the Louis S. StLaurent were used to collect data. However, in extreme cases where Canadian researchers were collecting data as far as 600 nautical miles from the Canadian Arctic coastlines, helicopters flew research teams and their tools to temporary camps. Verhoef said the team found evidence of more sediment than originally thought, suggesting the Commission submission may apply for even more extended continental shelf than expected. He also said the team came across some unanticipated data but would not provide any further details. Verhoef confirmed the team has a much better idea of what the continental margin in the Arctic looks like, but because the logistics of research in the region were so difficult, the mapping is not complete. Despite this, Verhoef and his team will go ahead with Canadas submission to the Commission in December 2013. An executive summary of the submission will be made public sometime this year.

Canada will be the third of the five Arctic states to submit its proposal to the Commission. Russia is reworking its 2001 submission after it was rejected by the UNCLOS for presenting insufficient data. Norway also claimed a small portion of an extended continental shelf. And Denmark is set to make its submission in 2014, leaving the United States. Special case According to Donald McRae, an international law professor at the University of Ottawa and Arctic issues expert, the U.S. is a special case. Despite the fact that the U.S. has not ratified the UNCLOS, it is still collecting data for what appears to be a submission to the Commission. McRae said that while the argument can be made that the U.S. is entitled to its Exclusive Economic Zone under international law, there are questions surrounding its entitlement to the extended continental shelf. The U.S., since it hasnt ratified, doesnt have arguably the right to submit to the Commission, and that sort of leaves open whether its outer limits could be determined definitively, one would hope through submission to the Commission, he said. McRae said that since the Commission doesnt have the power to make any legal determination, it is not clear if the U.S. would necessarily lose its claims to the extended continental shelf if it was rejected by the UNCLOS. That being said, there is a possibility that some extended continental shelf claims may overlap. McRae points to three areas where this is likely to happen: the Beaufort Sea between the U.S. and Canada, and the Lomonosov Ridge in the High Arctic, and a basin west of there both regions sandwiched between Russia and Canada. In the rare case where a claim overlap does occur, McRae said parties would mostly likely come to a diplomatic agreement. If that did

not lead to a resolution, the disagreement could be litigated in the International Court of Justice, a UNCLOS tribunal or UNCLOS ad hoc tribunal. But, according to McRae, it will be a long time before Arctic states start arguing over claims to the seabed because of the geological remoteness of possible overlap areas. Youd have to go a long way out before youd run into Russians saying this is ours, or someone saying thats the deep seabed and not geologically part of your continental shelf, said McRae. Both experts agreed that discussions regarding the division of the extended continental shelf are in the early stages. Canada and other Arctic nations will be far down the Commissions list of approximately 40 extended continental shelf submissions, so it will take several years for any decision regarding Canadas Commission submission to be made, according to McRae. While some have warned a race for Arctic resources could lead to armed conflict, McRae dismisses these predictions. He said there is definitely an interest in potential oil and gas reserves in the Arctic but proactive processes, like the Commission, will prevent major disagreements. Theres a lot of resources, everyones trying to fight to get their access to it. But from a lawyers perspective, its not like that. There are rules, there are processes, and so far all the evidence says that governments are behaving in accordance with those rules and processes.
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