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Arctic Continental Margins

In recent decades, it has been well recognized that published portrayals of the sea floor north of the Arctic Circle, particularly in the deep central basin of the Arctic Ocean, are not totally accurate, and that in certain areas, there are significant discrepancies between observed and charted depths. The principal cause of this situation has been the lack of sounding information needed to construct reliable and detailed charts: certain regions remain inadequately mapped on account of difficult operating conditions, or because critical data sets have not been made available for widespread public use.

The severe climatic and ice conditions in the Arctic Ocean make it difficult to apply some of the existing methods and technologies that are generally easy to use in other oceans, in order to obtain the information that is necessary for establishing the outer limits of the Continental Shelf.

The floor of the Arctic Ocean is characterized by the existence of at least four large submarine elevations that could be considered to be submerged prolongations of the continental margins beyond 200 nautical miles: Chukchi Plateau, Mendeleyev Ridge, Lomonosov Ridge, and Alpha Ridge. Adequate sets of geological and geophysical data, together with bathymetric and morphological information, are seen as critical to establishing that such elevations are indeed natural components of the continental margin.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, stipulates that any coastal state can claim territory 200 nautical miles from their shoreline and exploit the natural resources within that zone. Nations can also extend that limit to up to 350 nautical miles from their coast if they can provide scientific proof that the undersea continental plate is a natural extension of their territory.

Continental shelf claims beyond 200 nautical miles are made according to the provisions of Article 76 of the Law of the Sea. The implementation of Article 76 rests fundamentally upon the analysis and interpretation of bathymetric and geological information. A 1996 Workshop assembled specialists from the five coastal states that border the Arctic Ocean (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States of America) to discuss scientific and technical issues relating to the preparation of continental shelf claims beyond 200 nautical miles. During the course of the 1996 Workshop, it was recognized that all five coastal states have valid grounds for developing continental shelf claims beyond their 200 nautical mile limits, and that the possibility, if not the likelihood, existed of overlapping claims between neighboring states.

Article 76 of UNCLOS specifies a mechanism for extending the limits of the continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). After ratification of UNCLOS a country has ten years to collect the appropriate information and submit a claim for an extended continental shelf to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

Much of the argument revolves around the underwater Lomonosov Ridge. Mikhail Vasil'evich Lomonosov was the first Russian natural scientist of world importance. His major scientific accomplishment was in the field of physical chemistry, with other notable discoveries in astronomy, geophysics, geology and mineralogy. He founded what became Moscow State University, in 1755. This university, officially named after Lomonosov, is at the apex of the Russian system of higher education.

The Lomonosov Ridge is an undersea chain of mountains rising some 2500 meters above the Arctic floor. Measuring about 1700 km in length, the Lomonosov Ridge is considered to be of continental origin, a sliver that was separated from the Kara and Barents shelves and transported to its present position by sea-floor spreading.

The General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO, Canadian Hydrographic Service, 1979) served as an authoritative portrayal of the seafloor north of 64N. The International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean (IBCAO) was developed from an accumulation of bathymetric measurements collected during past and modern expeditions. Striking discrepancies between the GEBCO and IBCAO portrayals of the Lomonosov Ridge occur between the North Pole and the Siberian continental shelf. The new model shows a far more complex morphology, with a ridge that is broken into several smaller segments.

Countries have the possibility of claiming the Lomonosov Ridge, a submarine mountain range, as a natural prolongation of their land territory. Bathymetry, seismic and gravity data are needed to substantiate the claim. Out to a distance of 350 nautical miles or further, if coastal states can claim the Lomonosov Ridge as a natural prolongation of land territory, coastal states can exercise specified sovereign rights. These rights include the right to explore and exploit mineral and biological resources on and below the seabed and jurisdiction in matters related to environment and conservation.

The Lomonosov Ridge, which Russia claims is part of their continental shelf, is clearly a separate oceanic seafloor volcanic ridge and thus not part of Russia's continental shelf. The Russian UNCLOS claim over the Arctic Commons Abyssal area adjacent to the edge of their continental shelf was rejected in 2001 by the Commission for the Continental Shelf, as the geological facts proved that the claim had no basis under UNCLOS rules. The geology of the area in question has not changed since the Russian claim was rejected.

Russia's Oceanology research institute has undertaken two Arctic expeditions - to the Mendeleyev underwater chain in 2005 and to the Lomonosov ridge in August 2007 - on orders from the ministry to back Russian claims to the region, believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves and other mineral riches, likely to become accessible in future decades due to man-made global warming. The Natural Resources Ministry said in September 2007 that preliminary results of research carried out by Russian scientists will allow the country to claim 1.2 million sq km (460,000 sq miles) of potentially energy-rich Arctic territory. On 04 October 2007 Russia's natural resources minister said the development of the Lomonosov underwater mountain chain in the Arctic could bring Russia up to 5 billion metric tons of equivalent fuel. "Reaching the Lomonosov ridge means for Russia potentially up to 5 billion tons of equivalent fuel," Yury Trutnev said

In August 2008 Canadian researchers teamed with Danish scientists to offer proof that the Lomonosov Ridge is a natural extension of the North American continent. Their landmark findings, the initial result of years of sea floor mapping and millions of dollars in research investments by the Canadian and Danish governments, were presented at the 2008 International Geological Congress in Oslo under the innocuous title "Crustal Structure from the Lincoln Sea to the Lomonosov Ridge, Arctic Ocean."

Denmark hopes to collect evidence that will support a claim that the continental shelf of Greenland-a province of Denmark-extends to the North Pole. Norway is the only other country (besides Russia) that has filed a legal claim to extend its continental shelf into a portion of the Arctic Ocean.

New data from Russian scientists proved that the 1,500-km long underwater mountain range from Wrangel Island towards the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is a continuation of the Eurasian continental platform, that is, an extension of Russia. The underwater Mendeleev Ridge in the central part of the Arctic Ocean is a continuation of the continent, which means that Russia, in accordance with international law, can count on expanding the boundaries of its shelf. This was reported December 2019 in the scientific journal Earth-Science Review. It is noted that such conclusions can be drawn up by an atlas of paleogeographic and paleotectonic maps of the Jurassic-Cenozoic time compiled by geologists from Moscow State University in collaboration with colleagues from the Netherlands and the USA for the Arctic region.

Based on seismic data and comparing them with rock samples from the slopes of the Mendeleev Ridge and from a well drilled on the Lomonosov Ridge, scientists compiled a seismic stratigraphic map of the area and recreated all stages of its geological development over the past 157 million years. As a result, it was proved that the Mendeleev ridge 1,500 kilometers long from Wrangel Island towards the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is a continuation of the Eurasian continental platform, that is, an extension of Russia. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a coastal state - in this case, Russia - can apply for shelf territory outside the 200-mile zone, if approved by the UN Border Commission, Russia will be able to significantly increase the economic zone in the Arctic.

In 2001, a similar application was rejected on the grounds that the data submitted were insufficient. Now, scientists are hoping that the new results will put an end to the issue of belonging to the Mendeleev Ridge.

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Page last modified: 23-01-2020 17:48:00 ZULU