The Lomonosov and Alpha-Mendeleev ridge systems, which crisscross the Arctic Ocean, hold the key to substantial subterranean real estate. While many readers may never have heard of these geographical features, their geological status will determine whether Canada, Denmark (through its sovereignty over Greenland) and/or Russia will be able to claim sovereign rights over the seabed. A UN scientific body, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), will eventually rule on this issue.
Under the terms of the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which entered into force in 1994, coastal states can claim sovereign rights over extended continental shelves, that is areas of the seabed that lie beyond 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline. Under the terms of the Convention (Article 76), a decision was taken to allow coastal states to extend their rights beyond the continental shelf in a delicate legal operation to balance the interests of coastal states and those of the international community more generally. In the last 15 years, coastal states around the world have been seeking to establish and delimit their extended continental shelves.
The actual process of establishing a case for sovereign rights over extended continental shelves is not simply down to geology. The UN Convention established a legal-geophysical-geopolitical formula involving distance, sediment analysis and depth. In August 2015, after a great deal of work on its original 2001 submission, Russia resubmitted its materials for the area off the northern Russian coastline to the CLCS. At stake, as others such as Canada and Denmark recognise, is hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of seabed extending all the way to the North Pole. The new Russian submission claimed that the underwater ridge systems are extensions of Russia’s continental shelf. Denmark submitted its materials to the CLCS in 2014 and Canada will be submitting soon. It is widely expected that all three will claim that their sovereign rights extend over the seabed of the central Arctic Ocean.
“Canada, Denmark and Russia all want to claim that their sovereign rights extend all the way to the North Pole. National pride is at stake”
Millions of dollars (or equivalent currencies) will have been spent on each submission and the CLCS has such a backlog that it will be kept busy for several decades. However, the CLCS is a body without legal competence. In other words, it is a scientific-technical body that issues ‘recommendations’, which are just that rather than legal judgments. While coastal states are expected to respect the scientific findings of the CLCS, the central Arctic Ocean is a contested space. If, as expected, the three countries have overlapping submissions, they will be expected to resolve their differences via trilateral diplomacy.
Why does all of this matter? Is anyone really going to mine or exploit the central Arctic Ocean seabed any time soon? The first question is straightforward. It matters because Canada, Denmark and Russia all want to claim that their sovereign rights extend all the way to the North Pole. National pride is at stake. The second question is more mixed as all the Arctic coastal states including the United States are interested in resource potential.
What is noticeable is that the Russian resubmission has re-energised fears that it is trying to ‘grab’ further territory for itself. In the wake of Crimea/Ukraine, this kind of storyline has attracted further followers alongside well-publicised investment in military facilities and capabilities in its Arctic region.
The truth may be simpler. Russia is following the ‘rules’ regarding the determination of extended continental shelves and it is not surprising that given its size, its sovereign rights over the Arctic seabed will be substantial (equivalent to the size of Mongolia). However, it may well have to learn to share some of that space with both Canada and Denmark before the process is done.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.