On Russia’s Arctic seabed claim, media spin, and the perils of Hawaiian shirts


IBRU’s new Arctic map, with August 2015 Russian claims shown in pale yellow

As has been reported throughout the media, earlier this week Russia made a revised filing with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), presenting evidence backing up its earlier claim that portions of the Arctic seabed are contiguous extensions of the Russian continent and should be considered part of Russia’s extended continental shelf.

Arctic scholars watched with frustration (but not surprise) as the media portrayed this as a unilateral attempt by Russia to extend its territory into the innocent, unsuspecting world of Santa Claus and Stephen Harper. While I don’t question that unilateral expansion has happened elsewhere on Russia’s frontier (Crimea being the most obvious example), the happy truth is that the Arctic remains a place where Russia, and other states, have more-or-less played by the rules that are spelled out under international law.

To recap what really happened earlier this week:

  • The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) permits coastal states to claim exclusive rights to nonliving seabed resources in areas beyond 200 nautical miles from the coast if certain geological and bathymetric conditions are met. This is about extending the space where one has exclusive economic rights to resources, and, in the Arctic at present, no one is really interested in initiating resource extraction more than 200 nautical miles from shore, so the practical impact of Arctic seabed extended continental shelf claims is extremely limited. It’s not about extending a state’s sovereign territory, gaining strategic military advantage, or setting oneself up for the next big oil boom.
  • The first step involves making a filing with the CLCS where one submits scientific evidence that details where these bathymetric and geological conditions are met. Russia made its initial filing in 2001, but it was sent back for more evidence in 2002. This week’s filing was a revised submission for Russia’s Arctic waters. Russia had already submitted its revised submission for the Okhotsk Sea in 2013, and this was approved by the CLCS in 2014. There’s no reason to believe that the science in Russia’s revised Arctic waters isn’t similarly improved over the original 2001 filing.
  • In making this filing, Russia is doing exactly what most of the other Arctic states either have done or are planning to do. Norway submitted its claim in 2006 and it was approved in 2009. Denmark submitted its claim in 2014 and it’s awaiting review by the CLCS. Canada is preparing a claim. Of the the Arctic Ocean coastal states, only the United States is not involved in the claims-filing process, because it has not ratified UNCLOS. In addition, it should be remembered that dozens of other coastal states around the world have made CLCS filings for non-Arctic seas. All together, 77 filings (and a few resubmissions) have been made with the CLCS since the initial Russian filing in 2001. About three quarters of these await assessment.
  • The framers of UNCLOS recognised that in many cases various states’ Extended Continental Shelf claims would legitimately overlap. It’s entirely conceivable that in certain areas of the ocean two or more facing or adjacent states can both legitimately make the claim that the seabed is an extension of their continental shelf. UNCLOS explicitly notes that the CLCS’ job is only to assess the scientific merit of an individual state’s claim. If, after all the claims for a region have been verified, it is found that areas of seabed have been classified as the exclusive resource space of more than one space, then the relevant states are tasked with engaging one of a number of quasi-judicial forums for dividing the overlapping area or for arranging for joint management. This will surely happen in the Arctic. Indeed, Russia notes in this week’s filing that it recognises that some of its claimed space overlaps with space that has been claimed by Denmark and will likely be claimed by Canada. Although Russia doesn’t contest the legitimacy of the Danish and Canadian claims it acknowledges that the overlap will need to be worked through via the appropriate channels.

The one thing that’s really new about the 2015 Russian claim (aside from the better data) is that the limits of the Russian area in the 2015 filing are somewhat different than those that were in the initial 2001 filing. Some areas have been removed from the claim while others have been added. Over all, the new claim is just over 100,000 square kilometers larger than the old claim, including, most notably, a new area just on the ‘Canadian’ side of the North Pole. Somewhat surprisingly, given the prevalence of the “The Russians are Coming” narrative, most media stories have missed the fact that the limits of the Russian claim have changed and its total area has grown. Stepping into that void IBRU , in addition to producing an update of its map that shows the revised Russian claim, has released a special map that highlights the differences between the two Russian claims.


IBRU map comparing 2001 and 2015 Russian claim areas. Areas in green are in the 2015 claim only. Areas in red are in the 2001 claim only. Areas in pale yellow are in both claims.

As noted above, coverage of CLCS filings has been rife with misrepresentation. In some cases, I think this has been due to innocent reporting by journalists who are bewildered by the combination of technical legal data (how many people understand the difference between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign rights’?) and equally technical geological data (try getting your head around the fact that one of the criteria for claiming Extended Continental Shelf is “a line delineated in accordance with paragraph 7 by reference to the outermost fixed points at each of which the thickness of sedimentary rocks is at least 1 per cent of the shortest distance from such point to the foot of the continental slope (UNCLOS, art 76(4)(a)(i)?). Some of the misrepresentation has also been due to the ways in which the materiality of the Arctic and the ocean challenges the ways in which we think about core legal-political concepts like territory, sovereignty, land, and water.

But there’s also, as usual, been saber rattling by some who should know better (I’ll be polite and not name names).

My closest media encounter with Arctic misrepresentation started with a call that I received this past Tuesday afternoon from the BBC international programming division. My telephone briefing to the producer seemed to go great, as I concisely explained how Russia had done exactly what it was supposed to do under international law, and, so far as I knew, everyone else was fine with that.

Screen capture from iPlayer podcast of BBC4 World News Today (no longer available)

Aloha from Newcastle: screen capture from iPlayer podcast of BBC4 World News Today (no longer available)

Things started to get weird, though, when I got to the BBC office in Newcastle and the engineer set me up in a TV studio. Although the producer had identified himself as being from BBC World News (the BBC’s internationally syndicated TV channel), I was only half listening and processed this as BBC World Service (the BBC’s internationally broadcast radio station). So…well…I dressed for radio. It so happened that it was an unseasonably warm day in Newcastle and I came to the studio straight from work (which is a very casual place in the summer when no students are around). The result: I am probably the first ever Arctic talking head to appear on TV in a Hawaiian shirt. Fortunately, it was a relatively subdued shirt, and I had an (almost) matching jacket to (sort of) cover up, but I still didn’t win any BBC fashion awards.

The good news is that I appeared on the 7pm news which is simulcast on BBC4 TV in the UK as the ‘Word News Today’ programme, so over all the spot was well watched (according to Wikipedia, BBC World News gets 76 million viewers a week). But the anchor led off with the assertion that the other Arctic countries are all contesting Russia’s claim, which I’m pretty sure is patently untrue. It’s certainly not what I had told the producer (although it is in line with the BBC’s print story). I took the high road (how do you pick a fight when you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt?) and just ignored this, as well as the anchor’s attempt to provocatively link the Russian claim with the 2007 flag-planting incident. Throughout the interview, it was clear that the story was being placed within a broader narrative of Russian misbehaviour and imminent Arctic conflict.

If that’s what I was up against, and if I was to be the voice of calmness, peace, and general global mellowness, perhaps the Hawaiian shirt was actually quite appropriate.


2 comments on “On Russia’s Arctic seabed claim, media spin, and the perils of Hawaiian shirts

  1. […] up on my recent blogpost on Russia’s Arctic seabed mapping, The Conversation has published a companion piece on some […]

  2. […] and, at the same time, put in perspective, especially for European receiving nations. Not unlike the IBRU Arctic map that I’ve discussed elsewhere, Lucify attempts to communicate the nuanced nature of the data and its meaning through companion […]

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