Extended Continental Shelf Project Nears End

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy should be in port today, Labor Day (September 6), after about five weeks cruising the Arctic Ocean with the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St- Laurent to map areas of the seafloor and to image the underlying sediment layers. The expedition, known as the Extended Continental Shelf Project, is collecting data that will be used to designate sovereign rights to the underwater region.

According to a blog post from the Cutter Healy, the ship has slowly been working its way north mapping the sea floor. The ice, which had been pretty light, was thickening as the ship neared the North Pole, which, as of Aug. 24 (the last date where there was an update), was about 600 miles away.

The Cutter Healy is escorting the Canadian Louis and conducting flight operations almost daily with the Louis’ helicopter. Most days, the chopper departs from the Louis, stops by the Cutter Healy to pick up some ice observers, and flies in front of the two ships to survey ice conditions that await. Other days, the helo just flies between the two ships, taking members of each crew to the other ship for an exchange day.

The survey will enrich the scientific data set of the area and could have greater implications for other endeavors. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil; this represents 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil.

Under international law, as reflected in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, every coastal country has a continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles (nm) from its coastal baselines, or to a maritime boundary with another coastal country. However, the continental shelf of a coastal country extends beyond 200 nm (the “extended continental shelf”) if it meets criteria outlined in Article 76 of the Convention. (Note that this legal definition of “continental shelf” is different from that traditionally used by marine geologists.) Knowing where these limits lie is important because coastal states have sovereign rights over the continental shelf for the purpose of exploring and exploiting its natural resources—including those resources on the seabed (such as deep-water coral communities or mineral crusts and nodules) and beneath the seabed (such as oil and gas).

Stay tuned for an update of the expedition once the two ships return to port and complete the 2010 expedition.  —Rachel Walker