Canada’s Arctic Ocean continental shelf submission

From: Global Affairs Canada

Backgrounder

On May 23, 2019, Canada filed its submission with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding its continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic Ocean submission by the numbers

  • Continental shelf area: approximately 1.2 million square kilometres
  • Length of submission: approximately 2,100 pages
  • Number of coordinates defining outer limits: 877
  • Data collected:
    • 90,000 line kilometres of multibeam bathymetric, sub-bottom profiler and shipborne gravimetric data
    • 18,000 line kilometres of seismic reflection data
    • 8,000 line kilometres of refraction profiling data
    • 800,000 square kilometres of aero-gravity and aero-magnetic data
    • 800 kilograms of rock samples and three piston cores

Legal context

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides that all coastal states have a continental shelf extending 200 nautical miles (M) from coastal baselines or beyond 200 M if the shelf is a natural prolongation of its land territory. The Convention also recognizes that coastal states have sovereign rights over the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil of the continental shelf as well as jurisdiction over certain activities such as marine scientific research. The continental shelf beyond 200 M is often referred to as the “extended” or “outer” continental shelf. An estimated 85 countries, including Canada, are thought to have an extended continental shelf.

Article 76 of the Convention sets out a process for states to determine the limits of this extended continental shelf and gain international recognition for those limits. This process involves making a submission to, and having it reviewed by, an expert body established by the Convention called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The process is part of a compromise reached when states negotiated the Convention. It balances recognition of the inherent rights of a coastal state over its continental shelf with the interest of the international community in defining the limits of seabed beyond national jurisdiction, where the mineral resources are the common heritage of humankind and are administered through the International Seabed Authority.

The outer limits of the shelf are defined using the physical attributes of the seabed (depth, composition) as well as distance from shore. These attributes are used to determine a series of coordinates (latitude and longitude) by which the outer limits are defined. Coordinates must be justified by scientific data, notably bathymetric data about the shape of the seabed and seismic data about the composition of the seabed.

Process

The steps of the process set out in the Convention are:

  • preparing a submission and filing it with the Commission;
  • engaging with the Commission as it considers the submission;
  • receiving recommendations adopted by the Commission on the establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf;
  • taking the necessary domestic steps (e.g. regulations) to enact the coordinates of the outer limits in Canadian law; and
  • filing the coordinates of the outer limits with the United Nations.

Depending on how long Canada’s submission waits in the queue for the Commission’s consideration, it may take another 10 years to complete this process. Further, additional time may be needed to delimit boundaries in areas where Canada’s continental shelf overlaps with neighbouring states.

Canadian team

A team of scientists, technical personnel and lawyers from Global Affairs Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have prepared Canada’s submission. Natural Resources Canada (Geological Survey of Canada) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Canadian Hydrographic Service) are responsible for collecting and interpreting data and preparing the submission from a scientific and technical standpoint. They are also responsible for supporting engagement with the Commission as it considers Canada’s submission. Global Affairs Canada is responsible for the legal aspects of the submission, for undertaking associated diplomatic work and for overall engagement with the Commission.

Other departments, agencies and individuals were involved in the collection of data for the submission. These included Indigenous peoples, Canada’s territorial governments, Environment and Climate Change Canada (Canadian Ice Service), Parks Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, Defence Research and Development Canada, and the Department of National Defence.

Scientific work

The Canadian team collected scientific data for the submission over the course of a decade under some of the most challenging ice conditions on the planet. Canada collaborated with its Arctic neighbours in the scientific work, which included joint surveys and scientific collaboration with the Kingdom of Denmark, Sweden and the United States. The data collected for the submission has exponentially increased the scientific knowledge of the Arctic Ocean and opened a new chapter in the understanding of its history, geology and geomorphology.

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