Who owns the Arctic Ocean and any resources
that might be found beneath those waters? This question has enormous
economic significance. The United States Geological Survey estimates
that up to 25% of the world's remaining oil and natural gas resource might be held within the seafloor of the Arctic Region. Significant
quantities of other mineral resources might also be present. Control
of Arctic resources is an extremely valuable prize. These resources
become more accessible as global warming melts the sea ice and
opens the region to commercial navigation.
Freedom of the Seas
Since the seventeenth century a "freedom of the seas" doctrine
was accepted by most nations. This doctrine limited a nation's rights and
jurisdiction to the narrow area of sea along the nation's coastline. The
remainder of the ocean was considered as common property that could be used
by anyone. This was before anyone had the ability to exploit offshore resources.
Then in the mid-1900's concerns that long-distance fishing fleets
were depleting coastal fish stocks triggered a desire in some
nations to have greater control over their coastal waters. Then
oil companies became capable of drilling in deep water and ideas
for the seabed mining of manganese nodules, diamonds and tin-bearing
sands started to seem possible. Any nation that claimed a greater
distance from shore also made claim to valuable seafloor resources.
In 1945, the United States announced that it assumed jurisdiction of all natural
resources out to the edge of its continental shelf. This was the first nation to
depart from the freedom of the seas doctrine and other nations quickly followed.
Nations began making unilateral claims to seafloor resources, fishing grounds
and exclusive navigable zones.
The United Nations sought to bring order and equity to the diversity
of claims being made by nations around the world. In 1982 a United
Nations treaty known as "The Law of the Sea" was presented.
It addressed navigational rights, territorial waters limits, exclusive
economic zones, fishing, pollution, drilling, mining, conservation
and many other aspects of maritime activity. With over 150 nations
participating it was the first attempt by the international community
to establish a formal agreement on how the seas can be used. It
also proposes a logical allocation of ocean resources.
Exclusive Economic Zones
Under the Law of the Sea, each country
receives exclusive economic rights to any natural resource that
is present on or beneath the sea floor out to a distance
of 200 nautical miles (230 miles / 371 kilometers) beyond their
natural shorelines. In the Arctic, this gives Canada, the United
States, Russia, Norway and Denmark a legal claim to extensive sea
floor areas that might contain valuable resources. (As of April 2012, the United States had not yet ratified the Law of the Sea treaty. Those who have opposed ratification say that it would limit United States sovereignty).
The International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University has prepared a map showing the potential maritime jurisdiction and boundaries of the Arctic region if the Law of the Sea treaty is put fully into effect.
Continental Shelf Areas
In addition to the 200 nautical mile economic zone, each country
can extend its claim up to 350 nautical miles from its shoreline
for those areas that can be proven to be an extension of that
country's continental shelf. To make this claim, a nation must
acquire geological data that documents the geographic extent of
its continental shelf and submit it to a United Nations committee
for consideration. Most countries with a potential claim to the
Arctic are currently mapping the seafloor to document their claim.
Who Owns the Lomonosov Ridge?
One feature of the Arctic Ocean that is of special note is the
Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater ridge that crosses the Arctic Ocean
between the New Siberian Islands and Ellesmere Island. Russia
is trying to document that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the
Asian continental shelf, while Canada and Denmark (in regards to
Greenland) are trying to document that it is an extension of
the North American continental shelf. Any country that can
successfully establish such a claim will gain control of a vast
amount of seafloor resources
in the central portion of the Arctic Ocean.
In the future, as sea levels rise, current shorelines will
migrate inland and the 200 nautical mile economic zone will move inland
with them. In areas with gently sloping coastal land this landward advance
of the sea could be a significant distance. Perhaps those nations
should exploit their most seaward resources first?
In summary, the Law of the Sea Treaty grants significant undersea portions of
to Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Denmark. These
nations gain claim to the natural resources on, above and beneath the ocean
floor up to 200 miles from their shoreline. They can also extend their claim
up to 350 miles from shore for any area that is proven to be a part of their
continental shelf. All of these nations have gained significant oil and
natural gas resources as a result of this treaty.
Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: Over 87% of the Arctic's oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces: Amerasia Basin, Arctic Alaska Basin, East Barents Basin, East Greenland Basin, West Greenland East Canada Basin, East Greenland Rift Basin, West Siberian Basin and the Yenisey-Khatang Basin. Map by Geology.com and MapResources.
 Arctic Ocean: The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, website article and map, November 2011.
 International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean: Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the International Arctic Science Committee, the International Hydrographic Organization, the US Office of Naval Research, and the US National Geophysical Data Center, map accessed April 2012.