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Canada joins with Denmark to map depths of the Arctic
Toronto Globe and Mail


March 25, 2006

OTTAWA - As daylight returns to the High Arctic, Canadian and Danish scientists are about to begin an expedition to map an underwater mountain ridge that may stretch beyond the North Pole, a geological survey that could help both countries prove their legal claims to vast spans of seabed.

At stake are the rights to unknown, but potentially rich, deposits of minerals, oil and gas, and control over navigation in some of the most environmentally sensitive regions of the Arctic.

"We're making a claim for posterity," said Ruth Jackson, Canada's chief scientist on the project. "This is a one-chance opportunity."




In fact, the stakes are so high that neither country is allowing a dispute about sovereignty over Hans Island - a diplomatic spat that erupted last year with the unannounced visit of then-defense minister Bill Graham and a Canadian army reconnaissance unit to the tiny Arctic rock - to disrupt this scientific joint venture.

Poor weather this week delayed the advance party for the mapping expedition in Iqaluit. But team leaders expect all 30 staff and 15 tons of equipment to be in position next week at Canadian Forces Station Alert, a military outpost that is also the world's most northerly inhabited spot.

Denmark, through its control of Greenland, and Canada have a common interest in proving their legal claims to the seabed on the opposing slopes of a submarine mountain range known as the Lomonosov Ridge. The ridge appears to run from the area around Ellesmere Island and Greenland all the way under the polar ice cap to Russia.

Russia has filed its own claim along the Lomonosov Ridge line. Russia would like the undersea map drawn so that Moscow's jurisdiction overlaps with the seabed jurisdictions that Canada and Denmark want. The overlap is at the North Pole. Norway and the United States might make claims too.

Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia, said that if the scientific data support the Canadian and Danish positions, Canada could assert sovereignty over an underwater expanse larger than Alberta with perhaps comparable quantities of oil and gas.

Denmark could control a seabed area three times its own size, said Trine Dahl-Jensen, the Danish chief scientist.

Jackson cautioned that a lot of scientific work must be done before anything can be said for sure. "A hundred years from now, who can say what's going to be valuable and what isn't? Can I say there is a lot of oil and gas in the Lincoln Sea (adjacent to Ellesmere Island)? I don't know. There's a lot of sediment, and when there's sediment, there's often gas and oil."

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea covers seabed claims. Canada ratified the convention two years ago, and must submit all of its supporting scientific evidence by 2013. Denmark ratified a year later and has until 2014. Russia, which ratified in 1997, is in the middle of an extensive seismic mapping effort.

In geologic terms, the Canadian and Danish team is trying to demonstrate that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the North American continent. If this is so, the countries can claim control over the slope and the seabed well beyond the usual 200 nautical miles from shore. They call their project LORITA, for the Lomonosov Ridge Test of Appurtenance. Canada is putting more than $30 million into the work this year.

The Russians are trying to prove that the ridge is an extension of the Siberian continental shelf.

"From a scientific point of view, the Russians are using the same test and trying to get the same kind of data and we have no problem with that at all," Dahl-Jensen said by telephone from Copenhagen. "We'll just meet them in the middle."

So is the middle halfway between the Siberian and North American coasts, or is it the North Pole?

"Ah, that is what we call a very good question. There are two schools of thought," Dahl-Jensen said. The midline and the Pole are not the same. If the midline principle is recognized in international law, Canada will gain control over considerably more of the seabed. A settlement may be many years away.

The rush now is to get this spring's scientific work completed while it's still possible to land helicopters and other small aircraft on the shifting sea ice. The first satellite images pinpointing possible landing sites will be available within a couple of days.

The team will venture out on sea ice and run a "seismic line." That involves drilling 11 holes through the ice along the line and lowering dynamite charges. About 150 digital seismometers are strung out along the line to record the echoes when the dynamite is set off.

The angles and the velocity of the echo returns can provide scientists with a wealth of data about the submarine geology.

Mapping and proving the claim to the continental shelf in the Arctic "is Canada's moon mission," Byers said. "It's just as tough. But we can do this."


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