Sunday, August 05, 2007

Geology, geopolitics, and the Law of the Sea

In the international game of territorial rights, geology matters.

Russia made news last week with their largely symbolic flag-planting on the Arctic sea floor at the north pole. The Arctic region is thought to host significant amounts of petroleum resources and, as the world's demand for oil continues to grow combined with the disappearance of sea ice, nations wish to claim as much of this real estate as they can before exploration operations begin.

There is plenty of commentary out there on the blogs about this story specifically and the notion of Arctic oil exploration in general (e.g., here, here, and here) so I'm not going to focus on that. When I came across the short news article in this week's Nature, I became more interested in what criteria are used to decide which nation gets what when it comes to the sea floor.

The Nature article is here, you'll have to have a full license to see the whole thing, but I will quote a bit of it below.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows states an economic zone that extends 200 nautical miles from their coastline. To increase this, countries must prove to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that their physical continental margin extends farther than this.
The map from the Nature article (right) shows the 200 nautical mile line as a blue dotted line. Russia thinks they deserve more. They are claiming the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of their continental shelf, which would significantly extend their sea floor territory.
If Moscow can prove that the structure of the continental shelf under the ocean is geologically similar to that of Russian land, it may be able to extend its territory. The Lomonosov Ridge, which it sees as a continental extension, is key to its claims. Russia hopes to claim 1.2 million square kilometres and, with it, the rights to copious mineral and fossil-fuel reserves.
Check out the full UN Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty here. If you go to the section on the continental shelf, you'll find this statement as part of the definition:
The continental margin comprises the submerged prolongation of the land mass of the coastal State, and consists of the seabed and subsoil of the shelf, the slope and the rise. It does not include the deep ocean floor with its oceanic ridges or the subsoil thereof.
Emphasis mine. My first impression is that the Lomonosov Ridge, being an oceanic ridge and all, should therefore not be part of the definition of a states continental shelf territory. If a state disagrees with this determination, then they need to formally contest it with this UN entity, which they did, according to the Nature article:
In 2001, Russia became the first country to make a submission to the United Nations. It was told to supply more information, in particular about the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs under the Arctic Ocean between Russia and Canada. Russia claims this ridge is an extension of its Siberian shelf, but this is hotly contested by Canada and others.
What is the Lomonosov Ridge? I'm not an expert on Arctic geology, so I welcome any comments or links to better sources (especially resources in Russian). A quick search uncovered a 1992 Geology paper by Jokat et al.:
The 1500-km-long and 50-70-km-wide ridge rises 3 km above the adjacent abyssal plains and divides the Arctic Ocean into the Eurasian and Amerasian basins.

The ridge is postulated to be a continental fragment severed from the margin during the early Cenozoic opening of the Eurasian basin.
The Jokat et al. paper makes some conclusions about the origins of the ridge based on multichannel seismic-reflection data they acquired:
The geometry and attitude of the deposits below the ridge unconformity strongly suggest the Lomonosov Ridge is the remnant of a prograding continental shelf facing the Makarov Basin.

The progaded ridge flank facing the Makarov Basin indicates an early history of slope-rise sedimentation into the basin that existed before the Lo
monosov Ridge separated from Eurasia.
On the map at the top of the post, the Makarov Basin is the region shaded in orange above where it says Lomonosov. Assuming these conclusions are correct, then Russia's (and maybe Norway's little section) paleo continental shelf did include what is now the oceanic ridge. But, of course, the determination is on the present configuration, right? Well, Russia is indeed claiming that since the ridge originated as part of the Siberian shelf, then it is still theirs.

Talk about opening a can of worms. Imagine if the UN allowed arguments of current territorial boundaries to be determined by where the territory was 10s of millions of years ago! That would get interesting.

How will all of this affect scientific research in the Arctic? I think it's a double-edged sword in many ways. The prospects of opening the region to resource development will create major problems for researchers getting access to certain areas. On the flip side, a lot of mapping and imaging of the sea floor needs to be done to figure all of this out. The UN has said that their is "insufficient data" to resolve this. I'm certainly hesitant to be gung-ho about opening the relatively pristine Arctic region to petroleum operations, but, at the same time I get excited about the prospects of increasing our overall understanding of that region through sea-floor mapping, which is very expensive.

It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

Get more information about the map above here.

Note: this post cross-posted on August 8th, 2007 edition of
Additional information on Lomonosov Ridge from Olelog here.

Cold War Goes North; Kommersant

Wikipedia's page on the Lomonosov Ridge, which has a nice collection of links related to Russia's territorial claim.

W. Jokat, G. Uenzelmann-Neben, Y. Kristoffersen, and T.M. Rasmuessen, 1992, Lomonosov Ridge; a double-sided continental margin: Geology, 20(10):887-890


Chuck said...

An additional complication is that at least some of the Arctic basin has no oceanic crust, as a result of extremely slow spreading rates. Since the definition only specifically excludes crust, and not sperpentinite mantle, I'm sure the lawyers will have their fun.

Miguel Vera said...

Very nice documentation, I hadn't really paid attention to the subject but now that I know the deal I think it will be interesting to see how this evolves. Thanks for the info Brian.

Sabine said...

Like you, I would love for us to know more about the Arctic basin, but I am not *at all* thrilled about the idea of petroleum exploration there.

Kim said...

That sure is a can of worms. Just to complicate the Arctic even further, the Bering Strait is continental crust, and the peninsula at the northeastern corner of Russia is on the North American plate.

Part of my grad school research group was working on the evolution of the Canada Basin. Ten years ago, at least, the geometry of its opening was controversial.

Anonymous said...

And now we have a "joint Danish-Swedish expedition -- with its path toward the pole being cleared by a chartered Russian icebreaker, and with one Canadian scientist on board the research vessel"...

Brian said...

kent...thanks for the link, i think it got cut off...was it this article ??

Here's the key quote: "Mr. Sander said "preliminary investigations done so far are very promising" and suggest the disputed Lomonosov Ridge -- a 1,500-kilometre undersea mountain range that runs past the pole between Siberia and North America -- is a geological extension of the northern coast of Greenland."

It's all about that will be very interesting to see how the powers that be decide this.