MAC: Mines and Communities

US-Canadian Mission Set To Map Arctic Seafloor

Published by MAC on 2010-08-08
Source: PlanetArk

The US and Canada are about to map Arctic seabed minerals, as a prelude to determining their joint claims to "sovereignty"

For earlier story, see:

U.S.-Canadian Mission Set To Map Arctic Seafloor

Yereth Rosen


2 August 2010

Alaska U.S. and Canadian scientists are headed far north on a joint mission to map the still mysterious floor of the Arctic Ocean, as questions of sovereignty and mineral rights swirl around the region.

The five-week mission, the third joint expedition in as many years, employs two powerful icebreakers from the nations' Coast Guard fleets.

Both are scheduled to depart Monday, from ports in Alaska and Canada's Nunavut territory respectively, for a rendezvous point at sea, said the U.S. Geological Survey, a participating agency.

The program seeks to help both nations determine how far north they may extend their sovereignty, a potentially lucrative right in an era of melting Arctic sea ice and worldwide demand for the oil, natural gas and other minerals believed to lie beneath the seafloor.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal nations have sovereignty out to 200 nautical miles from their shorelines, including rights to the minerals and natural resources there, the USGS says.

If the nations can prove there is an extended underwater continental shelf, they may be able to claim sovereignty beyond 200 nautical miles.

The Arctic Ocean's international lure was highlighted in 2007 when explorers from Russia -- which has made disputed sovereignty claims in the region -- traveled by mini-submarine to plant a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed, about 14,000 feet underwater.

New this year for the U.S.-Canadian mission will be the first joint seabed surveys in an area of the Beaufort Sea where the two countries have competing sovereignty claims. They have yet to agree on a maritime border in the region.

Oil Field

Wherever the U.S-Canada border winds up "could be a fairly valuable decision" because that portion of the Beaufort Sea includes extensions of the petroleum-rich Mackenzie River Delta, said Jonathan Childs, a USGS marine geophysicist leading the mission's seismic data operations team.

But the border's location will not be the concern of scientists. They will focus on collecting sound data to help map the sea floor and using seismic tools to determine sediment thickness.

"That's up to the diplomats," Childs said. "It's not a scientific decision at all."

For this mapping mission, the guiding principal appears to be cooperation. Childs, for example, will be stationed on the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St-Laurent.

It and the U.S. cutter Healy, the largest U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, will work in tandem, switching lead positions as they plow though the icy water.

The aim is to sail to 84 degrees latitude, within 360 miles of the North Pole, Childs said. That would be farther north than past two years' voyages, he said.

The mission coincides with the seasonal disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic, which typically hits its minimum in September.

Sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean as of July 15 was about 16 percent lower than the average extent recorded between 1979 and 2000, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Particularly ominous is the deterioration of the ice quality, said Childs, who traveled the region in 1992, a time of different conditions.

"The ice has been getting much thinner and the age of the ice has reduced quite substantially," he said. "Now it's unusual to encounter ice that's more than two years old."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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