ST. PETERSBURG – The scientist responsible for preparing Russia’s claim to seabed rights at the top of the world says Canada and his country are both poised to reap staggering economic benefits when a deal on who owns title to what in the northern ocean is finally struck.
“Canada has a wonderful shelf and basin, so of course Canada can get very rich from this,” said Victor Posyolov, deputy director of Russia’s Institute of World Ocean Geology and the head of its Arctic research program.
Poring over maps tracking the evidence that he is amassing for Russia’s claim, Posyolov estimated that his country, with the longest Arctic coastline, would gain rights to about 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed. He reckoned Canada would get about 800,000 square kilometres of sub-surface territory. That would be about twice as much seabed as the other claimants, Denmark and the United States, are likely to get.
“The biggest shelves and basins are in Canadian waters and it will benefit the most. The U.S. and Denmark have modest sectors,” Posyolov said in a room dominated by a circumpolar map that Canada and Russia jointly produced in 1992.
“We are not involved in studies of how much oil and gas may lie in the Danish, Canadian and U.S. sectors, but there is open data using different methods to make forecasts. Every country knows or imagines that there are reserves there.”
Much has been made of the potentially overlapping claims for the Arctic, but Posyolov foresees little possibility of conflict. There already is “an approximate plan for the division of the Arctic that is not in dispute,” the oceanologist said. It was based on the principle that exclusive economic zones extend out 200 nautical miles (332 kilometres) from each coastal state’s shoreline.
The grey area was beyond the 200-mile limit. To claim sub-surface rights beyond that point, a country has to prove that a geographic link exists between its land mass and adjacent underwater formations that may extend far out to sea. Much of the research pertains to a formation known as the Lomonosov Ridge, which snakes under the ocean for much of the distance between Russia, Canada and Greenland.
Based on standard geographic principles involving equidistance, Russia and Canada would likely agree to split the Lomonosov Ridge at or near its middle. Posyolov suggested it was far more likely that Canada and Denmark would have a difference of opinion over the ridge where it runs closest to Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island.
Russia submitted a claim in 2001 to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which makes recommendations about who is entitled to what. The commission asked Moscow to provide additional data for the Lomonosov Ridge and the adjacent Mendeleev Rise.
While the Lomonosov and Mendeleev formations are central to Russia’s claim to much of the top of the world, Posyolov acknowledged that the UN “might declare the North Pole belongs to all humanity and that the area 60 miles around the North Pole belongs to no country.”
To prepare its claim, Russia has undertaken five separate polar expeditions since 2002, the last of which ends this month. Conducting such research has not been cheap. Each mission had involved two icebreakers and cost between $20 million and $30 million, Posyolov said. To share costs, the Danes had asked for Russia’s help with icebreakers while Canada has been working with the U.S., he said.
Tracing a red line that reached far out into the ocean on one of the maps on his desk, Posyolov said that was the rough extent of Russia’s claim. It was based on 13,000 kilometres of bathymetric studies of the underwater depths of the Arctic, 7,000 kilometres of seismic studies of the sea floor as well as research based on multi-beam echo soundings and studies that involved reflection and refraction waves.
Having already submitted a claim to the UN commission, Russia was at the front of the queue. Its revised claim is to be presented in 2013. Denmark and Canada will follow by the end of 2014. The U.S. position is unclear as Washington is not yet a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, whose membership elects the commission on the limits of the continental shelf.
“We present our materials and they say whether they are well-based, convincing and correspond to the UN convention,” Posyolov said. Each country could also say whether its claim was harmed by the claim of another country.
Headlines proclaiming a modern day Gold Rush to stake claims in the Far North badly missed the mark, Posyolov said. As an example of how long it can take to sort such issues out, he cited Norwegian and Russian claims that had taken three decades to resolve.
There are already 51 sea claims before the UN commission. As only about three of them are examined each year, Posyolov guessed that unless the process is somehow accelerated, it would be several decades before the pending Arctic claims were resolved.
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