Research quietly backs Canada’s claims on Arctic sovereignty

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August 8, 2008 by Water Wisdom


There will be no flag-waving or patriotic chest-thumping, but Canadian scientists are quietly set to make one of this country’s most important assertions of Arctic sovereignty in decades on Friday at a geology conference in Norway.

There will be no flag-waving or patriotic chest-thumping, but Canadian scientists are quietly set to make one of this country’s most important assertions of Arctic sovereignty in decades on Friday at a geology conference in Norway.

A year after Russian scientists planted their nation’s flag on the North Pole seabed — a controversial demonstration of their country’s interest in securing control over a vast undersea mountain chain stretching across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Ellesmere Island and Greenland — the Canadian researchers have teamed with Danish scientists to offer proof that the Lomonosov Ridge is, in fact, 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, are to be 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.”

But the completion of the study represents a key step in Canada’s effort to eventually win rights over thousands of square kilometres of the polar seabed, a potential treasure trove of oil and gas being made more and more accessible as melting ice unlocks our High Arctic frontier.

The stakes are so high that the Canadian and Danish governments set aside their differences over the ownership of Hans Island – a tiny island situated between Ellesmere and Danish-controlled Greenland – and a nearby section of the Lincoln Sea in order to collaborate on seabed surveys of the Lomonosov Ridge.

Along with Russia, both Canada and Denmark are preparing submissions under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to secure jurisdiction over large swaths of the Arctic Ocean sea floor adjacent to their coastlines.

But to secure those rights, each country has to submit scientific evidence proving the claimed undersea territories are linked geologically to its mainland or its Arctic islands.

Canada’s planned UNCLOS submission includes areas in the Beaufort Sea in the western Arctic, on the Lomonsov Ridge in the east and along another underwater Arctic mountain range in the central Arctic called Alpha Ridge.

The Canadian-Danish study of the Lomonosov Ridge is to be presented in Oslo by Danish researcher Trine Dahl-Jensen and four scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada: Ruth Jackson, Deping Chian, John Shimeld and Gordon Oakley.

The study describes various geological traits observed by the two countries’ scientists – including magnetic anomalies, crust characteristics and volcanic features – that appear common to both the ridge and adjacent parts of Canada and Greenland.

“Plate reconstructions that require the Lomonosov Ridge to be attached to the North American and Greenland plates are consistent with our data,” says a conference summary of the team’s conclusions.

The findings are also being submitted to the prestigious Journal of Geophysical Research for publication next year, Halifax-based geoscientist Jacob Verhoef, the head of Canada’s seabed mapping project, has told Canwest News Service.

As a further sign of the intensifying interest in the Lomonosov Ridge and its potential petroleum riches, a Russian study being presented at the Oslo congress explores Lomonosov-Siberian connections and a study by the U.S. Geological Survey examines the ridge’s oil and gas potential.

“Our initial look suggests that most of the key elements for a petroleum province may exist on the Lomonosov Ridge,” the U.S. study states, “but that large uncertainties about the stratigraphy, reservoir quality, traps, and thermal history remain.”

Verhoef has stated that until research by Canada, Russia and Denmark is completed and submitted under UNCLOS deadlines (Canada’s is 2013), seabed boundaries in the Arctic will remain unresolved.

But he has acknowledged possible overlapping claims between the three countries along the Lomonosov Ridge, which could ultimately be divided and placed under multiple jurisdictions. Canadian scientists will return to the ridge next year to continue gathering data in support of Canada’s claim.

This summer’s rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice — part of a growing body of evidence that climate change is quickly transforming the northern ocean and adjacent lands — has again trained the world’s attention on the ecological challenges, political disputes and economic opportunities in the polar region.

Earlier this week, British researchers announced the creation of a new map of the Arctic Ocean to highlight existing boundary disputes and potential seabed claims in what has become one of the world’s geopolitical hot spots.

And on Wednesday, the Department of National Defence detailed plans to conduct a “sovereignty operation” in Nunavut later this month.

The Aug. 19-26 exercise, similar to one conducted last summer, is intended “to project sovereignty in the eastern Arctic” and to test the military’s ability to respond to oil spills and ship emergencies, the department said.

The operation is likely to coincide with the re-opening of the Northwest Passage, the sea route through Canada’s Arctic islands that opened more completely than ever during last summer’s record melt of Arctic ice.

Scientists are predicting the passage will be unlocked again within weeks, and they’ve also raised the possibility of an ice-free North Pole soon because so much of the current Arctic Ocean ice cover is thin, weak first-year ice.

© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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