‘Denmark claims the North Pole’ as one British newspaper would have it. Within hours of the Danish government announcing that it had submitted materials to the UN Committee on the Limits of the Continental Shelf implying that it had the necessary geological evidence to argue that its extended continental shelf via Greenland extended all the way to the central Arctic Ocean, the framing of this story began in earnest. From 2002 onwards, and with millions of Danish Krone invested in the process, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland has been hard at work following the rules of engagement set out under the terms of Article 76 of UNCLOS. As Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard noted, “”The submission of our claim to the continental shelf north of Greenland is a historic and important milestone for the Kingdom of Denmark”. The Kingdom of Denmark, it is hoped, would extend northwards.
For a coastal state to establish further sovereign rights to extended continental shelves involves demonstrating to the CCLS, a technical body made up of scientists, that certain conditions have been reached and that the final limits of the extended continental shelf region cannot exceed the following; “The fixed points comprising the line of the outer limits of the continental shelf on the seabed, drawn in accordance with paragraph 4 (a)(i) and (ii), either shall not exceed 350 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured or shall not exceed 100 nautical miles from the 2,500 metre isobath, which is a line connecting the depth of 2,500 metres”.
For those interested in understanding territory as volumetric then look no further than UNCLOS and Article 76 and 77. You really do have to do more than just map the surface of the seabed. And as the Danes, Russians, Canadians and Norwegians have found in the Arctic context, it is time consuming and expensive.
Once the Danish submission has been received by the CLCS, this specialist body will begin the evaluation process mindful of the fact that the Russian authorities submitted their materials regarding the central Arctic Ocean in 2001 (and were invited to resubmit after the CLCS demanded further materials) and the Canadian government of Stephen Harper reportedly demanded that their impending materials including a Canadian ‘claim’ to the North Pole as well. So, in a nutshell, three countries believe that their continental shelves extend as far as the North Pole/central Arctic Ocean. The CLCS can only issue ‘recommendations’ and they have no legal authority to arbitrate so whatever happens the three coastal states will have to negotiate amongst themselves, once the CLCS has evaluated each of their submissions. It is worth stressing that the mapping/surveying process has been co-operative at times, and despite fears about a belligerent Russia (especially after the infamous flag-planting incident in 2007), all the parties have engaged with the UN-brokered process. The United States is the only Arctic state that cannot submit materials to the CLCS because of the US Senate to approve ratification. But it has been mapping its extended continental shelf areas nonetheless.
For now the Danes grab the headlines but the reality of the situation is that an over-worked CLCS has a backlog of work to complete and that the issue of sovereign rights over the seabed of the central Arctic Ocean will take years to sort out. There is no quick technical-scientfic and or legal fix out there. For the Danish government, the submission is a useful reminder to their fellow Arctic Ocean coastal states that they expect to be taken seriously, and no doubt a reminder to the electorate of Greenland that only Denmark can spend millions of Krone on such a mapping/surveying exercise. An independent Greenland, it is reasonable to assume, would not be able to afford such an investment. If and when there is some kind of delimitation of extended continental shelves in the Arctic Ocean, the remaining areas will be designated ‘The Area’, and as such will come under the purview of the International Seabed Authority. And as a consequence these pockets of seabed will be of interest to the wider international community even if no one believes that the central Arctic Ocean seabed is a latter day El Dorado. Whatever the Arctic resource hype, it is worth repeating that the vast majority of the undiscovered oil and gas potential in the Arctic region lies within the exclusive economic zones of the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the US; A5). Low oil prices, shale gas revolutions and global energy markets more generally will be a powerful determinant of the long-term development of the Arctic region.
What we should keep an eye on in 2015 is fish and fisheries management. Earlier this year the Arctic 5 met to discuss initial ideas for how fisheries might be managed in the Central Arctic Ocean. While there is no fishing at present, global warming patterns and possible fish species migration might make this part of the Arctic more accessible and appetising to outside parties. As with the high seas elsewhere, fisheries management in the central Arctic Ocean will need to embrace coastal states and extra-regional parties, especially China and the EU. We expect these parties to be meeting with the A5 next year in order to consider whether any kind of interim measures/principles might develop such as either extending the geographical remits of regional fisheries organisations or even creating a new one for this maritime region. So my advice would be to follow the fish and not submarine ridges. While all three countries want to demonstrate their ‘rootedness’ to the central Arctic Ocean, it is the objects that move such as fish, planes and boats that animate and maybe even enflamer les passions.
Unlike Christmas, Arctic geopolitics is a moveable feast. KD