Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Recent storms north of Alaska and Siberia have accelerated the ice melt in the Arctic. The summer melt in the Arctic had been lagging behind last year (right). The shift in pressure systems, coupled with thinness of the existing ice, means this year could still give 2007 and William Connolley and run for their money.

Leaving the science aside, this means there will be no shortage of news stories about the legal battle over which countries, if any, have rights to which parts of the Arctic sea floor. To the lay observer, the competing claims to Arctic sea floor will appear either ridiculous or intractable. Or both.

For example, the most significant dispute is over the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1800 km spine of the Earth's crust that running under the Arctic from Russia to Canada. For the past several years, the Russians have been arguing that the ridge is an extension of Russia's continental shelf.

Why? The Law of the Sea, signed back in 1982 and ratified in 1994, states that a country has exclusive economic rights to everything within 200 nautical miles of the coastline. There's one exception: if the country's continental shelf - defined as "the natural prolongation of the land territory to the continental margin's outer edge" - extends beyond 200 nautical mile limit. If Russia "proves" that the Lomonosov Ridge is geologically related to the country's traditionally recognized continental shelf, it can claim exclusive rights to a huge swath of the Arctic sea bed, including the North Pole.

International agreements aside, it strains credulity that the results of the ongoing scientific exploration of the Arctic sea floor, including the ridge in question, will actually settle the argument. Would the rest of the world really allow Russia, or Canada for that matter, claim ownership of a huge swatch of the Arctic Ocean because a 1800-km long undersea geological formation that was under permanent ice and totally inaccessible when the Law of the Sea was developed just happens to connect to the Russian continental shelf?

Surely the provision of territorial rights to undersea ridges extending 1000s of kilometres under the frozen Arctic Ocean was not the intention of the Law of the Sea, and especially the precursor agreement, when it was passed. And surely, Russia did not originally settle and lay claim to the northern regions with the understanding that it would provide access to an unknown deep sea floor ridge hundreds of metres below a frozen sea no one had explored.

The dispute over the Arctic is a prime example of how even our laws need to adapt to a changing planet. It is a shame the world didn’t have the foresight to place the Arctic Ocean under international protection, like Antarctica. It is hard to imagine that happening now.

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