NEWS: Around the Arctic May 31, 2011 - 5:36 am

Expedition could solidify Canada’s Arctic claims

Canada heads to the High Arctic to justify its claim over the Arctic Ocean's resource-rich seabed


Postmedia News

A High Arctic mapping expedition this summer along a mysterious undersea mountain chain near the North Pole will mark the culmination of a 10-year federal research project, which aims at adding millions of square kilometres of ocean floor to this country’s territorial possessions.

Halifax-based geoscientist Jacob Verhoef, the head of the Canadian government’s efforts to secure vast new stretches of seabed territory under a UN treaty on extended continental shelves, said Monday that his team’s last scheduled underwater survey for Canada’s claim will be carried out jointly with U.S. researchers in August along the little-studied Alpha Ridge, a drowned mountain range more than 1,500 km north of Yukon’s Arctic Ocean coast.

“That would be the end of the field work,” said Verhoef, noting that this year’s research should give Canada “sufficient scientific data” to finalize its claim — but adding the caveat that unpredictable weather in the Arctic always requires having a “Plan B” in case things go wrong.

This year’s scheduled completion of survey work for the project — with the final, detailed submission of Canada’s claims to the UN commission due in 2013 — means the government of Stephen Harper is likely to preside over one of the country’s biggest territorial acquisitions since Confederation.

While Canada’s push for expanded offshore territory began under the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, the Conservatives under Harper have earned considerable credit among Arctic watchers for their intensified focus on the project, including key infusions of research funding soon after taking power in 2006, when Verhoef was expressing fear that bad weather, resource limitations and other factors were putting Canada at risk of missing its 2013 deadline for seabed claims with the UN.

Now, the Conservative government stands to reap the rewards of a longrunning federal research project that’s not only rich in nation-building symbolism but also — at least potentially — in massive resource payoffs, principally offshore oil and gas deposits.

Key to completing the measurements has been collaborative expeditions with scientists from the U.S. and Denmark, both of which are also competing with Canada, because of their respective Arctic possessions in Alaska and Greenland, for undersea land grabs in northern waters.

The case for gaining new undersea territory can be proven in one of two ways.

Countries can claim seabed anywhere they can prove that the continental bedrock extends underwater from existing territory — the northern mainland and Arctic islands for Canada — until the sea floor drops consistently below a depth of 2,500 metres.

The other approach involves measuring offshore seabed sediment -such as the enormous deposits of discharged silt accumulated at the bottom of the Beaufort Sea from the outlet of the Mackenzie River -and claiming continental extensions under a complex UN formula calculated from the depth of those deposits and their distance from shore.