Canada files to define outer limits of expanded Atlantic continental shelf; preliminary filing on Arctic, targeting North Pole
|Overview of the outer limits of the expanded Canadian continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean. Click to enlarge.|
On 6 December, Canada filed a submission to define the outer limits of its expanded continental shelf area in the Atlantic Ocean with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. At the same time, Canada also filed preliminary information concerning the expanded outer limits of its continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, which could include the North Pole.
In a news conference on the submission, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said that Canada will indeed try to extend its territorial claims to the North Pole. “What we want to do is claim the biggest geographic area possible for Canada.”
Legal context. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides that all coastal states have a continental shelf extending 200 nautical miles (M) from coastal baselines or beyond 200 M if the shelf is a natural prolongation of its land territory. The Convention also recognizes that coastal states have sovereign rights over the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil of the continental shelf as well as jurisdiction over certain activities like marine scientific research.
The continental shelf beyond 200 M is known as “the extended continental shelf.” An estimated 85 countries, including Canada, are thought to have an extended continental shelf.
Article 76 of the Convention sets out a process for states to determine the limits of this “extended” continental shelf and gain international recognition for those limits. This process involves making a submission to an expert body established by the Convention called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The process is part of a compromise reached when states negotiated the Convention. It balances recognition of the inherent rights of a coastal state over its continental shelf with the interest of the international community in defining the limits of seabed beyond national jurisdiction, where the mineral resources are the common heritage of mankind and are administered through the International Seabed Authority.
The outer limits of the shelf are defined using the physical attributes of the seabed (depth, composition) as well as distance from shore. These attributes are used to determine a series of coordinates (latitude/longitude) by which the outer limits are defined. Coordinates must be justified by scientific data, notably bathymetric data about the shape of the seabed and seismic data about the composition of the seabed.
Canada became party to UNCLOS on 7 December 2003. Under the terms of the convention, states parties have 10 years from the date they became party to the convention to file a submission with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. States parties can satisfy the 10-year time frame in the convention by submitting preliminary information indicating an intention to file a submission.
The Atlantic submission. The Atlantic shelf area is approximately 1.2 million square kilometers; 732 coordinates define the expanded outer limits.
According to the submission, in geological and geomorphological terms, the continental margin of Canada in the Atlantic Ocean extends continuously from offshore Nova Scotia in the south, along the Grand Banks to the northern tip of Labrador, although each of the three regions has unique characteristics. This continental margin comprises a number of seafloor elevations and forms the submerged prolongation of the land mass of Canada.
This submission for the Atlantic Ocean is a major step toward delivering on our priority of obtaining international recognition for the full extent of our continental shelf.—Minister Baird
The tremendous effort to define the outer limits of our continental shelf is an investment in Canada’s long-term economic prosperity. Legal certainty and international recognition is vital to developing our potentially immense resources.—Joe Oliver, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resource
The submission for the Atlantic is the result of a decade-long scientific and technical undertaking by experts from the departments of Natural Resources, Fisheries and Oceans, and Foreign Affairs, and fulfills Canada’s legal obligation pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in respect of this area. They gathered 13,000 kilometers (8.078 miles) of seismic data and 18,000 kilometers (11,185 miles) of bathymetric data in the process.
Defining the outer limits of a continental shelf of this size requires significant scientific work. The Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Geological Survey of Canada have collected a great deal of data in areas that are ice-covered, difficult to access, and that in some instances had not previously been surveyed. While collected for Canada’s submission, this data will also contribute to increasing our scientific knowledge of the Arctic.—Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea
The preliminary Arctic submission. With its filing of the preliminary, incomplete submission, Canada asserted that it was satisfying the time period requirement of the Convention, and that the preliminary information was submitted without prejudice to the question of the ultimate delimitation of the continental shelf.
Canada said that in the Arctic it faced the challenge of collecting data in areas that are ice-covered, difficult to access and that, in some instances, had not previously been surveyed.
The existence of perennial ice cover over much of the shelf area required an acquisition plan that involved data collection through the ice as well as collection of seismic and bathymetry data using icebreakers. International collaboration, notably with the United States of America and the Kingdom of Denmark, as well as the innovative use of technology were used to collect the best data possible in this environment. In preparation for its submission, Canada has acquired about 15,500 kilometres [9,631 miles] of seismic reflection data, 1,100 km [684 miles] of seismic refraction data and 38,000 line-kilometres [23,612 miles] of bathymetric data, as well as deployed 171 sonobuoys to collect information about the seismic velocity in the sedimentary layers. A total of 58,000 km [36,040 miles] of airborne gravity and magnetic data have been collected over the Alpha and Lomonosov Ridges in the Arctic Ocean.
The continental margin of Canada in the Arctic Ocean is part of a morphologically continuous continental margin around the Canada Basin and along the Amundsen Basin. It comprises a number of seafloor elevations (Lomonosov Ridge and Alpha Ridge) and forms the submerged prolongation of the land mass of Canada. Throughout, the areas of continental shelf extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baselines of Canada and, on the Alpha and Lomonosov Ridges, beyond the 350 nautical mile constraint.—Canadian submission
In the news conference, Minister Baird said that Canada has not completed mapping the Lomonosov Ridge, which could link Canada to the North Pole.
The Lomonosov microcontinent is an elongated continental fragment that transects the Arctic Ocean between North America and Siberia via the North Pole. In 2001, Russia filed its first claim with the UN for ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge (see map at right). The UN rejected this claim, but Russia has continued research to bolster its claim.
Denmark also contends that Lomonosov is part of the continental shelf of Greenland. Denmark’s goal is to submit a formal claim to the CLCS by November 2014.