Russia’s shocking take-over of Crimea grabbed the world’s headlines. The much larger territorial claim over part of the Lomonosov Ridge should be less surprising.
While Russia, Canada and Denmark are still working on claims for the UN shelf commission, Canada announced late 2013 that it intended to lay claim to the north pole – never before taken as national territory – the move caused alarm among the other Arctic states: Denmark, Russia, Norway and the US. Norway in 2009 got its claim approved and thus became the first of the Arctic five to have its Arctic territories delimited. The Russian Federation submitted a claim in 2001. The CLCS, however, recommended a revised submission, which the Russians are expected to submit in 2014. The Russian claim from 2001 included the part of the Lomonosov Ridge which extends from the Russian coast until the point of the North Pole.
The Arctic Ocean is governed by the UNCLOS - the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea. The convention came into force in 1994 with the purpose of settling unsolved delimitation issues regarding oceanic territory. UNCLOS is ratified by 161 countries. Among these are the arctic coastal states of Canada, Denmark, Norway and the Russian Federation, however, not the USA. The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) consists of 21 members (elected for the period 2007-12), who all have technical expertise within the scientific areas of geology, geophysics or hydrography. The members are candidates from those countries, who have ratified the UNCLOS. They usually meet twice a year. Of the various articles in the UNCLOS we have chosen to focus on article 76 as it determines the rules for claiming the outer limit of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. Article 76 in the convention states that “equitable geographical representation” on the matter must be submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The submission must take place no later than 10 years after ratification of the UNCLOS.
The Lomonosov Ridge is an unusual underwater ridge of continental crust in the Arctic Ocean. It spans 1800 km from the New Siberian Islands over the central part of the ocean to Ellesmere Island of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The width of the Lomonosov Ridge varies from 60 to 200 km. It rises 3,300 to 3,700 m above the seabed. The minimum depth of the ocean above the ridge is 954 m. The Lomonosov Ridge was first discovered by the Soviet high-latitude expeditions in 1948 and is named after Mikhail Lomonosov.
The Lomonosov Ridge is not very precisely marked on the map, and it is therefore difficult to determine how the territorial claims overlap on the specific ridge. A closer look at the technical maps made by GEUS - the Danish institute for geological surveys - shows that the Russian claim collides with the Danish one regarding the Lomonosov Ridge close to the point of the North Pole, and the Canadian investigation of the Lomonsov Ridge overlaps the Danish ones at the southern end of the ridge. In late July 2007, a Russian expedition sent an icebreaker and two mini-submarines, Mir-I and Mir-II, to explore the region. Russian scientists dived down 4261 m (14,000 ft) below the surface and on 2 August planted a rust-proof titanium metal Russian flag on the seabed. In late June 2007, Russian scientists claimed that the ridge is an extension of Russia’s (continental shelf) territory.
The Arctic nations are increasingly looking to the north as a source of natural resources and shipping lanes. The US Geological Survey has estimated the region has 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15% of the oil.
The highly civilized debate on undersea claims through the auspices of the UN contrasts sharply with recent events in Crimea. The arctic nations jockey for territory through polite diplomatic channels…so far.