Law of the Sea: Diplomacy in the Arctic
September 22, 2008
Happy Equinox! The nights are growing longer at the North Pole; this marks the transition from 24 hours of daylight to 24 hours of night.
This past weekend I decided to learn more about the policy and legal aspects associated with this journey, so I spent some time talking with Brian Van Pay, a maritime geographer with the Department of State who is onboard Healy and is an expert on law of the sea issues.
Our expedition to map the Arctic seafloor will provide some of the data necessary to define the extent of what is called the extended continental shelf (ECS) in the Arctic Ocean. The ECS is simply that portion of the continental shelf that lies beyond 200 nautical miles from the shore and over which a country has sovereign rights.
So why do this? The U.S., like other countries, wants to identify and declare to others the exact extent of our sovereign rights in the ocean. Those rights include exploration, exploitation, conservation, and management of non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil, such as mineral and petroleum resources. These rights also extend to living, “sedentary” resources, such as clams, crabs, sponges, and coral. The fish that swim above the continental shelf are not included.
There are rules that say how a country should define its extended continental shelf. The Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty, says every country gets a continental shelf that goes out to 200 nautical miles. But, in some cases, a country can define a continental shelf that goes beyond 200 nautical miles if it meets certain criteria.
The data the U.S. and Canada are collecting during this expedition will help determine whether the continental shelf in this portion of the Arctic Ocean meets those criteria.
The work to collect and analyze the data necessary to define the U.S. continental shelf is coordinated by the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Task Force, an interagency body headed by the U.S. Department of State. The U.S. Geological Survey is one of the agencies that participate in this Task Force. There have been four other missions to the Arctic to collect data to determine the extent of the U.S. ECS. In fact, a Healy research cruise previous to the expedition I am on now was dedicated to mapping the ECS in the Arctic Ocean as well. If you are interested in learning more about these previous cruises, see the Joint Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping website for more information. These cruises are expensive, and the ECS Task Force is careful not to spend money when existing data will meet its needs. Therefore we are using seismic data collected by U.S. Geological Survey expeditions to the Arctic on the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star in 1992 and 1993.
On a side note, the other night we had a pie auction, and this wasn’t the typical pie auction I am used to. A large tarp was placed down in the hangar with one chair over it. When I walked in people were standing around yelling prices and pulling out their wallets. Finally someone yelled, “Sold!” and the winner grabbed their pie. As they held it, they looked around the room smiling and picked the person who would become their target. The lucky person sat in the chair on the tarp and got a pie in the face! Check out my pictures to see who got a pie from me!
From the Arctic,