On August 2, Russian scientists took a pair of mini-submarines more than two miles below the surface of the North Pole and deposited a titanium-encased Russian flag on the ocean floor. The Russian government asserts that the unprecedented venture bolsters its claim to a huge swath of the Arctic seabed and the rights to massive oil and natural gas deposits believed to lie beneath it.
While much world reaction to the announcement ranged from bewilderment to amusement, Canada—a country with Arctic claims of its own—responded sharply. “This isn’t the fifteenth century,” Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign minister, was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ “
A Seriously Symbolic Act
Boalt ocean law expert Professor David Caron ’83 agrees. “MacKay has it exactly correct. The time when title might be gained through planting a flag has long passed. Now virtually all the nations of the world accept the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that give all coastal states the right to the seabed and superjacent waters along their coastlines out to a distance of 200 nautical miles.”
Caron—co-director with Professor Harry Scheiber of the Boalt-based Law of the Sea Institute (LOSI)—says that the recent expedition was largely symbolic. “Nonetheless, symbolic acts can have effect. It is a claim and thus prompts both objections and opposing claims, like those of Canada, lest there seem to be acquiescence.”
Aside from planting the flag, the expedition was also charged with gathering evidence to support the assertion that more than 45 percent of the Arctic sea floor is an extension of Russia’s continental shelf and thus Russian territory. As Caron notes, in some instances international law permits extending territorial claims to the seabed further than the 200-mile limit. However, the claiming country is to present viable scientific evidence to a commission created by the 1982 treaty to review the basis of such extensions. Although the commission stated in 2001 that there was not sufficient scientific evidence at that time to support Russia’s filing, Russia plans to persist, and will offer new evidence in 2009.
Pushing the Limits
Caron stresses that, independent of the review process under the 1982 Convention, “in no event may the coastal state’s claim to the seabed extend more than either 350 miles from the coastline or 100 miles from the 2500-meter isobath [a contour line connecting points of equal water depths on a chart. Editor]. In terms of distance from the coast, the North Pole appears to be more than 400 miles from any Russian island and more than 600 miles away from its nearest coastline. Other countries, such as Greenland (Denmark) and Canada, are at least equally close to the Pole, although they are also more than 200 miles away.” The calculation based on distance from the 2500-meter line isobath “involves a complicated assertion based on the geomorphology of the seabed which likewise appears available to other circumpolar nations.”
The retreat and predicted disappearance of arctic sea ice due to global warming means eventual access to the Arctic seabed and to what may be a full quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas. This is certain to escalate the long-standing rivalry among Russia, the United States, Canada and other coastal countries for the Arctic’s potential riches. In addition, the Russian assertion puts additional pressure on the Senate to give its advice and consent to U.S. ratification of the 1982 treaty.
Nuclear Waste in the Arctic
Caron notes that offshore oil development is not the only pressing arctic issue, and referred specifically to the huge quantity of nuclear waste the Soviet-era government dumped onto the Russian continental shelf. “The amounts dumped, often in shallow water, are staggering. As the containers deteriorate over the coming decades, there will be a continuing and deep set of serious environmental hazards in the Arctic.”
LOSI has had an ongoing project on the “Oceans in the Nuclear Age.” Caron and Scheiber are editing the first volume from that project and report that a whole part will be devoted to the dumping and its ramifications.
For more on the current Senate debate regarding the U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, see The United States and the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, a recent article by David Caron and Harry Scheiber.