The Great Arctic Land Grab

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The continental shelf pattern in the Arctic is outlined in red. Mutual boundaries already stretch out from the neighbouring land masses to divide the area of the continental shelf, where neighbouring countries share boundaries above water.

The Arctic will now become a battleground following the attempt by the Russian Federation to claim most of the area as part of Russian territory.

Once, nations claimed the sea up to three miles from their coasts. Until recent times, there was little point in claiming more because it provided no profit. The purpose of the three mile limit was to provide an area of sovereign waters through which navigation was controlled by the country that owned the coast. Inevitably the three mile limit became contested in some locations because there was not enough distance between neighbouring countries for all to maintain a three mile limit. Negotiation achieved an understanding and an agreement on where the invisible boundary ran. In some cases the boundary moved where deltas fed into the sea, creating changing mud and sand banks so that navigable channels moved with the seasons.

As fish stocks became depleted, some countries claimed much greater maritime boundaries to enable them to manage fish stocks for their own national benefit.

The discovery of gas and oil, that could be economically extracted from beneath the sea bed, led to further claims.

The compromise was to consider continental shelves as being territorial submarine territories. The argument was that technology already demonstrated that fuel and minerals could be extracted from these areas.

The fundamental weakness of the continental shelve boundaries is that technology moves on and the sea bed can be used, exploited and controlled in ways that were inconceivable only a few years ago.

Perhaps the time has now come for nations to agree boundaries that extend their rights across the sea beds without regard to the depth of the oceans’ floors.

Until this is done, there will be growing conflict between nations who wish to exploit minerals from the seabed. The claims by the Russian Federation demonstrate the potential for conflict that could develop into armed conflict. This is a very real threat and the first example was 25 years ago when Argentina invaded the British Falklands Islands, largely to extend Argentine submarine territory far out into the Atlantic to gain control of oil, minerals and fish stocks.

In the case of the Arctic, the Russians are making claims on the basis of underwater ridges that run out across the floor of the Arctic Ocean. The United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Norway could also make claims on a similar basis. Even the United Kingdom could make a claim to extend submarine territory into the Arctic Ocean and further into the Atlantic.

BSD Newsdesk

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