In early August, the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent and the Swedish icebreaker Oden will start smashing their way through ice several meters thick to gain access to some of the most remote areas of the Arctic Ocean.
For six weeks, one ship will clear a path through ice 3m (10ft) thick – or more – while the other bristles with instruments emitting sonar and seismic waves to map the seafloor. The vessels will repeatedly trace lines across the Amundsen Basin, on the eastern side of Greenland, before making their way up to the Alpha and Lomonosov ridges, the submerged mountain ranges that stretch across the top of the planet, thousand of meters below the surface of the ocean.
This summer’s scientific survey is the final push by Canada to collect the data needed to trace its continental limits. The mapping will give the nation the chance to increase the portion of the Arctic Ocean that falls within its territory – giving it greater rights over the seabed, including access to offshore oil, gas and minerals – according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
“This is the data we need to bolster our submission,” said Mary-Lynn Dickson, director of the UNCLOS program for Natural Resources Canada. “It’s a huge scientific undertaking.”
Under UNCLOS, a coastal state is entitled to the continental shelf area (and its buried resources) that lies within 200 nautical miles of its coastline, called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But it can also extend that claim, if it has the data.
Of the five nations with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean, four – Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia – have ratified the agreement; the U.S. has not. Once ratified, a nation has 10 years to gather the necessary data, analyze it and submit it to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
Countries can go about finding that outer limit in one of two ways, said Richard Haworth, a member of the commission.
The first approach scrutinizes the slope of the seabed. As it extends away from the coast, the steepness of its slope changes. The point where it makes its most abrupt change – from very steep to much less so – marks the foot of the slope; 60 nautical miles seaward of that point is one way to define the continental limit, said Haworth.
The second method is more complicated, but gives nations the opportunity to extend their claims even further, relying on the geology of the seabed. A layer of sedimentary rock extends from dry land into the sea, its thickness tapering as it moves seaward. Scientists measure the thickness of the sediment – using acoustic and seismic mapping devices – as it extends further out to sea. When its thickness is 1 percent of the distance back to the foot of the slope, “that is where you put the iron spike in the sea floor,” Haworth said.
Canada submitted preliminary information on the outer limits of its continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean in December 2013. It had already done a substantial amount of the mapping, but needed to do additional work. Some media reports said the government had delayed its submission so it could finish mapping the Lomonosov Ridge to firm up its claim over the geographic North Pole.
Russia was the first Arctic nation to deliver its submission to the commission in 2001, but the subcommission established to review the documents said they lacked sufficient geological evidence. Norway filed its claims in 2006 and the commission adopted its final recommendations in 2009.
Denmark submitted a partial claim with Greenland in 2014. Canada plans to submit its claim in 2018. Now Russia has updated its earlier submission, it will be the next to have its data reviewed, a process that will begin this summer and could take two to three years. “For Greenland, it may be another 10 years,” said Haworth.
The submissions are reviewed independently of each other. Each subcommission (there is one for each nation) includes experts in geography, geophysics and hydrology who review the data, analysis and claims. Of the 77 submissions made so far, about 40 have been evaluated by the commission, Howarth said. “The process is tried and tested.”
In the Arctic, there are several areas of overlapping claims. Greenland, Russia and Canada each have areas of interest in common with other countries, including the geographic North Pole and large swaths of the seabed surrounding it. “There will be overlaps, and it will all be worked out,” said Dickson.
Dividing these overlaps is not the responsibility of the commission, but of the state governments. For example, both Norway and Russia shared competing claims for the continental shelf in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean. But in 2010, the two countries settled the dispute with a treaty that split the area into almost equal parts.
“Some people may think it is a land-grab,” said Dickson. “But it really is a science-driven process.”