In DepthMarine Geology

Russian claim heats up battle to control Arctic sea floor

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Science  14 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6249, pp. 678
DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6249.678

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A long-simmering struggle over who owns the Arctic sea floor intensified last week, as Russia submitted an updated territorial claim. Russia's claim to an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of seabed near the North Pole sets up a potential clash with other Arctic nations. Denmark has asserted ownership of part of the area claimed by Russia, and Canada is also expected to file an overlapping claim. The claims are sure to fuel technical debates, because the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in 1994, links territorial claims to the fine points of undersea geology. The law gives each coastal nation control over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends 370 kilometers off its shoreline. But if a country can provide geological proof that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ, it can expand its claim by up to an additional 278 kilometers. This "extended continental shelf" provision has enabled some nations, including Australia and New Zealand, to expand their seabed territories by up to 50%. Now, some of the five Arctic nations—Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, and Norway—are angling for similar gains. It will be up to the U.N.'s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a 21-member technical body that evaluates the science underlying UNCLOS claims, to sort out the competing interpretations of Arctic seabed geology.

  • * Lucas Laursen is a freelance journalist in Madrid.

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