Scuffling for Arctic boundaries

© research vessel Akademik Fedorov
Russian research vessel Akademik Fedorov - Sputnik International
On July 28, the Akademik Fyodorov research vessel sailed out from Arkhangelsk and is heading to the Arctic on a 100-day expedition aiming to demarcate the Russian continental shelf.

On July 28, the Akademik Fyodorov research vessel sailed out from Arkhangelsk and is heading to the Arctic on a 100-day expedition aiming to demarcate the Russian continental shelf.

On August 3, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a research icebreaker, and the icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent, the flagship of the Canadian Coast Guard, will also chart a course for the same region with the same objectives.

With all these expeditions, the demarcation of Arctic boundaries is getting underway in earnest.

In August 2007, the Akademik Fyodorov, kitted out with the latest sounding and seismic-reconnaissance equipment, sailed to the North Pole with two deep-sea mini-submarines (Mir-1 and Mir-2) on board. The submarines descended to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean where they dropped a metal capsule containing a Russian flag.

Moscow said the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, which extends through the North Polar Region, was actually a geological extension of Russia's Siberian continental plate, thus allowing Russia to lay claim to the region under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The United States and Canada, which are Russia's Arctic neighbors, were more annoyed than scared, by such statements all of which need to be backed up by underwater drilling, seismic reconnaissance, geophysical data and precise measurements.

The Akademik Fyodorov will accomplish all these objectives. This, and subsequent expeditions, are aimed at collecting data so an official Russian claim to the Arctic shelf can be filed with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in 2013. A similar Russian claim, submitted in 2001, was turned down as lacking scientific substantiation. Apart from Russia, Norway is the only Arctic country to file a similar claim, which it did in 2006.

The current expedition comprises experts from the National Research Institute of Oceanography, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), the Research Institute of Navigation and Hydrography, the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. It is escorted by the nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal. The project is quite serious. If Russian arguments prove correct, then Moscow would establish control over a 1.2 million square kilometer sector, and would also receive exclusive rights to develop the colossal hydrocarbon deposits in the Chukchi Peninsula - Murmansk - North Pole triangle. This is worth struggling for.

It should be noted that all the Arctic countries became quite excited about the prospect of dividing up the Snow Queen's Territory, after they learned it contains huge hydrocarbon and other deposits. The United States Geological Survey, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior, estimates that the Arctic shelf may contain over 25% of undiscovered global oil and gas deposits. Their volumes may even dwarf those of the already explored Saudi Arabian hydrocarbon deposits, making them seem like a barrel of kvass (Russian bread drink) next to an Olympic swimming pool.

But all these oil and gas deposits still have to be located and exploited. This is a very expensive undertaking. Still we should consider the fact that the Arctic is getting warmer and melting faster than any other region of the world. Given this trend, the Northwest Passage, the shortest route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Canadian Arctic, could be opened for all-year-round navigation in the next ten to 15 years, or maybe even earlier. This would halve the distance between Europe and Japan. This seems quite a realistic prospect, all the more so if we consider the ambient air temperatures. It is therefore not surprising that the world has become fascinated with geographical explorations, and that our Arctic neighbors, and other countries, are rushing to demarcate their territories.

It is surprising how many countries are lining up in front of the Arctic gateway. No one will have the guts to prevent China, openly striving to enter the region, from accessing the freezing Polar region's riches. No other scenario seems possible at a time when the division of colossal Arctic resources is being gradually prioritized. Sea routes in northern Canada and Russia are now open for navigation longer than usual due to global warming. All-year-round navigation along these routes would reduce the distance between China and Germany, China and the U.S. East Coast by 6,000-7,000 km in either direction.

Beijing has already realized this, and is preparing to operate in an ice-free Arctic by starting to convert its scientific Arctic programs into applied research. China's Xue Long (Snow Dragon) icebreaker, the largest conventional icebreaker in the world, already sails to the Arctic. Built in Ukraine in 1993, it is the first Chinese ship in this class and has now been completely overhauled.

China lacks any legal grounds for claiming the right to own parts of the Arctic continental shelf, but would like to see littoral states improve the relevant legal framework, stipulate clear and understandable navigation rules and demarcate regional boundaries, oil and gas fields, and so on. This would allow the world's largest economy to invest lavishly in regional projects and conduct export-import operations.

Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway have always prioritized ownership of Arctic Ocean territories and will now be expected to present their official claims. But this will prove more difficult than discovering the North Pole in the first place, because their concepts of Arctic-demarcation are as different from each other as the tip of the iceberg is from its real dimensions.

Canada has always proposed the sectoral principle, with Russia supporting this concept until 2001. Ottawa believes that regional borders should pass from the most northerly national territories along meridians all the way to the North Pole. In that case, the Arctic would be divided like the top of a watermelon. Russia would receive the largest chunk measuring about 5.8 square kilometers and would be followed by Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway and the United States.

However, this principle does not suit Washington which has so far failed to ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and which ignores its restrictions.

The United States is demanding the right to control territories stretching 600 nautical miles from Alaska to the North Pole and proposes retaining a three million sq. km. "no man's land" on the top of the world where everyone would be able to catch fish and extract mineral resources.

Denmark probably voices the most unusual claim to the Arctic region. Copenhagen would like to demarcate local borders in accordance with equidistant lines from claimant-country coasts. As Greenland is located closer to the North Pole than any other regional territory, Denmark would be able to control the top of the world, as well as a sector almost as large as the Canadian Arctic.

RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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