About the Author: Brian Van Pay is a Maritime Geographer with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. He is currently on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy on the Arctic Ocean.
This is my sixth and final entry for DipNote aboard the Healy. Thanks for all of your comments and questions over the past couple of weeks. I’ll close this series by answering those questions that were presented and a couple others that I am typically asked.
Is this a modern-day land grab? Is this a race for resources? No, the Arctic Ocean is just that -- an ocean -- and just like other oceans, there are international law and agreements in place that govern how nations will act. In fact, high-level officials from the five nations that border the Arctic Ocean (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States) met in Ilulissat, Greenland at the end of May. There they reaffirmed that the law of the sea provides a foundation for responsible management of the Arctic Ocean. They also pledged their commitment to freedom of navigation in Arctic waters, preservation and protection of the fragile marine environment of the Arctic Ocean, cooperative marine scientific research, and orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims to the continental shelf.
So why now? Are we up there because of climate change or declining ice? No. While this might make for a more interesting story, the real reason lies in a sentence toward the end of the Convention that says each nation has 10 years to define its continental shelf once they become a party. Many nations, including Canada, are approaching their respective deadlines. We are taking advantage of cooperative opportunities as they arise, such as this joint venture with Canada.
What significance is there to Russia planting a flag on the North Pole in August 2007? While it was a technological achievement for two submersibles to reach the seafloor of the North Pole, the action of planting a flag has no legal effect. On a related note, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a maritime boundary agreement in 1990. Russia has respected this provisional maritime boundary, and they are not defining an extended continental shelf where the United States might.
How does the fact that the United States has not acceded to the Convention on the Law of the Sea affect the establishment of its continental shelf? President Bush issued a statement in support of the Convention in May of 2007 and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee successfully voted it out of Committee in October 2007, but a vote on the Senate floor has yet to be scheduled. The United States abides by the Convention, its provisions secure our sovereign rights over the U.S. continental shelf, and the United States will continue to collect data that will define the outer limits of our continental shelf. Accession to the Convention will provide greater international recognition to the establishment of those limits.
What safety precautions are there for marine mammals while collecting seismic data? Natural Resources Canada conducted an environmental assessment and subsequently received an authorization from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. As part of the authorization, the Louis has marine mammal observers aboard and has implemented mitigation measures. (As an example, the seismic system was shut down when we passed the polar bear and her cub that I mentioned in the last blog). All seismic data collection is occurring from the Louis and outside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. The Healy also has a marine mammal observer aboard to serve as a supplementary lookout. Finally, both ships have representatives from the native communities onboard to monitor activities on behalf of the native subsistence hunters.
Who is doing the work? The work to define the U.S. extended continental shelf is coordinated by the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Task Force, an interagency body headed by the U.S. Department of State. Participants in this Task Force include the: U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Executive Office of the President, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, Minerals Management Service, and Arctic Research Commission. In addition, much of the data collection has been done by the Joint Hydrographic Center, a cooperative office between the University of New Hampshire and NOAA. For more information on the work of the ECS Task Force and the data collection this summer, see our website.
Fall is setting in and the surface of the open water is turning to a thin black or gray ice and soon it will become solid, first-year ice. After traversing just over 3,000 miles during the past 26 days, it is time to wrap up data collection this season and head back home. The Louis broke off from us at midnight on Saturday and is on its way to Kugluktuk for a crew change. On Wednesday, the Healy will anchor off the Alaska coast once again where my colleagues and I will board a helicopter for the short ride to Barrow. By Monday I’ll trade in my jeans and plaid shirt for my suit and tie back in Washington, where I have plenty of work to get us organized for our efforts over this next year.
I hope you enjoyed reading my entries on DipNote as much as I have enjoyed writing them. To my family and friends, I will see you soon.
Editor's Note: Read Brian's previous entry about life aboard an icebreaker.