Russia submits evidence to UN to expand Arctic borders by 1.2 million sq km

Wrangel Island in Chukotka is famous as “the home of the polar bear”.

Wrangel Island in Chukotka is famous as “the home of the polar bear”.

Bezrukov & Bashnaeva
The presentation was made by Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi

Russia has submitted evidence to a UN commission that the southern part of the Gakkel Ridge and Podvodnikov Basin, as well a the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleyev Ridge and Chukotka Plateau, are a continuation of the Russian continental shelf, which means the country's borders in the Arctic could expand by 1.2 million square km.

The presentation was made by Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi, who said Russia has done a great deal of research and collected exhaustive data proving its rights to expand its borders in the Arctic. More than ten years of work went into preparing the materials.

"All of the gathered data confirm the continental nature of the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleyev-Alpha elevation, Chukotka Plateau, as well as the uninterrupted continuation of these elements from the shallow water shelf of Eurasia. This is indicated by the consistency of the sedimentary cover, elements of the floor, as well as the general continuity and consistency of deep layers of the earth's crust and the absence of transverse faults of a shifting nature in the area of the juncture of the Lomonosov Ridge and the Eurasian continent," Donskoi said after the presentation in New York.

"In general, the areas that Russia is claiming cover the geomorphic shelf of Russia's Arctic peripheral seas, part of the Eurasian basin (Nansen and Amundsen basins, Gakkel Ridge) and the central part of the Amerasian Basin consisting of the Makarov Basin and the complex of Central Arctic submarine elevations. The application for establishing the external borders of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean is based on the scientific understanding that the component parts of the complex of Central Arctic underwater elevations have a continental nature and are part of the submarine rises that are a natural component of the continental margin," the minister said.

No decisions on the Russian applications should be expected this year. Donskoi said the UN commission's review of the application could take two to four years.

"The application is very extensive, there's a lot of information. We hope to fall within the standard timeframe, and the standard timeframe for considering applications is around two years, maximum four years," Donskoi said. For the time being, UN commission experts will discuss specific sections and positions in the Russian application.

Russia's main rival in delineating boundaries in the Arctic is Denmark, which wants to prove that almost all of the territory that Russia is claiming is part of its continental shelf.

Photo by Vladimir Maximov / Courtesy of MAMM

Donskoi said that the areas presented in Denmark's application as belonging to the continental shelf north of Greenland significantly overlap the areas included in the Russian application. This includes the area of the Arctic Ocean near the pole and part of Lomonosov Ridge. There might be similar overlaps in Canada's application.

Russia has held consultations with Denmark and Canada on this issue and reached an understanding that the three countries do not object to the commission considering one another's applications and making its recommendations.

The final delineation of Russia's continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean will be made after the commission makes its recommendations on the Russian application.

Donskoi also said that the commission has received three verbal notes from Canada, Denmark and the United States through the UN Secretary General's Office. "None of the verbal notes contain objections against the consideration of this partially revised Russian application by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf," the minister said.

Denmark was also supposed to present its application on February 9, but it was postponed, Donskoi said.

Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the seafloor and its subsurface resources beyond the continental shelf are the common heritage of mankind, represented by the International Seabed Authority. The convention has been approved by 155 countries, including most leading developed maritime nations, except the United States.

Russia adopted and ratified the convention in 1997. However, just three years later the Russian government drafted a concept for the external boundaries of Russia's continental shelf, in which it tried to show that the country's continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean goes beyond the 200-mile zone. Russia submitted its first preliminary application to expand its borders to the UN in 2001.

Taking into account subsequent findings, Russia split its application into two parts - one to expand the boundaries of the shelf in the Sea of Okhotsk and the second to expand the boundaries in the Arctic - and begin working on the geological substantiation. Over a period of ten years, Russia conducted major geological and geophysical research in the Arctic Ocean to study the nature of the Mendeleyev and Lomonosov ridges, conducting bathymetric and seismic surveys. The last expedition to the Arctic in October 2014 conducted geological and geophysical research in the area of the Podvodnikov and Amundsen basins and crossed the North Pole, where such research had not been done before.

Russia has already succeeded in expanding the borders of its continental shelf. In August 2013, a Russian delegation made a similar presentation to the UN commission of an application to expand the borders of the shelf in the central part of the Sea of Okhotsk by more than 50,000 square km. The commission approved the application a year later. However, the commission made its decision in a more stable political climate and there were no other claimants to this area.

Five countries - Russia, Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States - are now seeking to expand their continental shelf in the Arctic. Denmark was the first to submit its application to the UN commission, claiming 900,000 square km of the Arctic, including the North Pole. Canada is also preparing substantiation for its application.

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