This year, two research vessels equipped to cut through heavy ice - one American and one Canadian - will focus on the region north of Alaska onto Alpha-Mendeleev Ridge and eastward toward the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
As climate change melts the Northern polar ice cap, the polar countries are mapping their claims to this new frontier where much of the world's undiscovered oil and gas is believed to lie beneath the seabed. The data collected on this survey could support U.S. and Canadian rights to natural resources of the sea floor beyond 200 nautical miles from their coasts.
Instead of fighting over the demarcation of this new border between their countries, Canada and the United States are cooperating to document the scientific facts by which to draw the border line in this vast warming wilderness.
"This project is another example of the incredible degree of cooperation between the Canadian and U.S. governments," said Canada's Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt. "This collection of data provides a unique and important opportunity to expand Canada's efforts to delineate the outer edge of its continental shelf."
The CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent in Arctic ice (Photo courtesy Canadian Coast Guard)
The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy will rendezvous in the Beaufort Sea on August 9. The ships complement each other since each is equipped to collect a different type of data.
"The joint Arctic survey by Canada and the United States is an example of an exceptional and valued partnership," said Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon.
"Canada is an Arctic power," said Cannon. "Our government has a clear vision for the North. Determining where Canada can exercise its sovereign rights over seabed resources by delineating the outer edge of the country's continental shelf in the Arctic is an important element of our Northern strategy."
"The CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, with its icebreaking and scientific capacity, is a key asset in Canada's continental shelf delineation, and by working together to manage expensive arctic field operations, each country will save millions of dollars," said Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea.
Coastal nations have sovereign rights over the natural resources of their continental shelf, generally recognized to extend 200 nautical miles out from the coast.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has been signed by the United States, but ratification is now stalled in the U.S. Senate. The treaty provides nations an internationally recognized basis to extend their sea floor resource rights beyond the foot of the continental slope if they meet certain geological criteria backed up by scientific data.
USCG polar icebreaker Healy in Arctic ice (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
Canada is a Party to the Law of the Sea Convention, having ratified in 2003. Canada has until 2013 to prepare a submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to delineate the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond the 200-nautical-mile-from-shore limit, thereby determining where it can exercise its sovereign rights.
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada is responsible for preparing the submission. Natural Resources Canada's Geological Survey of Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Canadian Hydrographic Service are responsible for the scientific work needed for the submission.
The CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent will collect seismic data about the composition of the shelf, which provides information on the depth and characteristics of sub-bottom sediments, as well as gravity data.
The USCGC Healy will collect multibeam bathymetric data, which provides information on the depth and shape of the seafloor. Healy will also collect gravity and sub-bottom profiler data to help characterize the nature of the sediment and sub-bottom.
The U.S. icebreaker will clear a path while the Canadian ship collects data, and vice versa.
The Canadian portion of this year's mission will be led by Dr. David Mosher of Natural Resources Canada's Geological Survey.
The U.S. portion of the 2009 mission will be led by the University of New Hampshire's Joint Hydrographic Center with funding and scientific support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Dr. Larry Mayer, co-director of the Joint Hydrographic Center, will be expedition chief scientist, and Capt. Andy Armstrong, NOAA Office of Coast Survey researcher and co-director of the JHC, will be co-chief scientist.
"We now have a better geologic picture of what's happening in that area of the Arctic," said Armstrong. "These are valuable data for NOAA and the United States, and I'm pleased that we're making them available for anyone to use."
"Understanding the bathymetry and geological history of the Arctic is an important part of understanding global climate change," said Mayer. "The Arctic acts as a global spigot in controlling the flow of deep ocean currents that distribute the Earth's heat and control climate. The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine."
The United States and Canada plan to continue their interagency and intergovernmental cooperation on Arctic data collection in 2010.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.