September 11, 2009

Arctic Ocean set to be mapped and tapped

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More than just ice is heating up in the Arctic. U.S. and Canadian ships embarked on a joint exploration to map the sea floor in early August, an effort to determine how far the continental shelf extends from shore and possibly increase each country’s claims to resources, reports Elizabeth Bluemink in the Anchorage Daily News. Traditionally, countries hold rights to areas within 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) of their coasts, but those claims can be extended if they can prove the continental shelf goes beyond that point.

As the ice cap has melted over the years, Canada and the U.S. have waited to explore the Arctic sea floor in search of massive amounts of suspected gas and oil reserves. A third of the world’s undiscovered gas and billions of barrels worth of oil could be below the surface, according to Bluemink. If the new data gathered on this exploration proves the shelf extends beyond the 200-nautical-mile-limit, the U.S. could lay claims to the underwater land and all creatures and resources associated with it.

Those favoring conservation of the Arctic rather than drilling don’t have to hold their breath yet. Because the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, any claims they make to the area will not be recognized internationally.

Researchers are analyzing the data collected on the venture. One find is a massive underwater mountain almost 3,600 feet high that scientists say may help explain the Arctic Ocean’s history.

Other researchers are more concerned with the Arctic’s future. As the climate warms, many areas in the Arctic are changing rapidly, reports Randolph E. Schmid of the Associated Press. Faster melting ice means changes in growing seasons, which affects many species’ ability to find food. Wildlife like caribou are having difficulty timing their calving seasons with changing growing seasons, and a growing number of Pacific brant geese might be spending the winter in Alaska instead of migrating to Mexico.

Melting ice also allowed two German cargo ships smooth sailing through the Arctic Ocean from South Korea to the Netherlands, reports Andrew C. Revkin in the New York Times. Their arrival later this month will mark the first known commercial venture through the Arctic, a fabled trade route that is now possible as summers warm in what’s being called earth’s newest ocean.

— Emily Linroth

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