Friday, August 29, 2008

#10 Pictures at the Commission

Images courtesy of CCOM/UNH

How the mapping data is used: Pictures at the Commission?

So, what will be done with the pictures produced from the sonar mapping described in the last blog entry? The geologists and hydrographers on board are already poring over the first processed results of the data, and excited at some of the formations they reveal: possible rifting here, a better picture of known but poorly mapped features there, weird formations that cannot yet be identified: the discoveries and the questions they raise seem endless. The second image above is of the Healy Seamount, a major discovery on the 2003 Healy cruise in the Arctic Ocean. The image is created by taking the kind of colorful swath pictured at the end of yesterday’s blog, interpreting the pings into three-dimensional images of the structures on the ocean floor, and combining it with other information already known about the area from earlier data collection.

Being able to make such discoveries is a valuable side-benefit of the extended continental shelf mapping project, which has been funded by Congress through NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) since 2002. Larry Mayer, the cruise’s Chief Scientist, and his Center for Ocean and Coastal Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center at UNH, were approached to carry out the mapping with NOAA not only in the Arctic Ocean, but for all of the US coastal areas. Andy Armstrong of CCOM and NOAA is along on this and all of the Healy cruises as the Co-Chief Scientist. CCOM scientists will process the data further when they return to UNH, combining it with data from past years’ Healy mapping cruises to provide more information on where the outer reach of the US-Alaskan extended continental shelf might lie.

The extended continental shelf, or ECS, is that part of a country’s shelf that extends beyond the 200 nautical miles automatically accorded to every coastal state under the LOS Convention and accepted state practice.

Under article 77 of the Convention, the coastal state exercises "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting its natural resources." Those natural resources include oil, of course. The Convention describes the natural resources over which the coastal state exercises those rights as: "mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil" and certain sedentary living organisms on or under the seabed.

Every coastal state has rights over its continental shelf whether or not it has joined the Law of the Sea Convention. Each coastal state also sets its own extended continental shelf limits. However, the assertion of those limits by a state that is not party to the LOS Convention is much more vulnerable to challenge than ECS limits that have been confirmed by the delineation process set out in the Convention. Over 150 states are party to the Convention; the US is the only arctic state that is not.

Article 76 of the LOS Convention lays out a process for delimiting the outer reaches of a state’s extended continental shelf. That process involves submitting ocean floor mapping and other data to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The CLCS is established by the Convention and comprises 21 experts in geology, geophysics and hydrography. States that follow the delimitation process have the certainty of a "final and binding" status for any limits it sets based on the Commission’s recommendations. But only States that are party to the LOS Convention have the clear right to submit data to the CLCS. So until the US ratifies the Convention, which – remarkably – is far from a foregone conclusion, it cannot obtain the greater certainty as to its shelf limits that comes from Commission review. For more information on the prospects and widespread support for US ratification of the LOS Convention, please see the links at the bottom of my blog page.

Whether or not the US is ever able to submit the data supporting its assertion of extended continental shelf limits to the Commission, the data CCOM is gathering on the Healy cruises will provide the scientific foundation for those limits. It will also provide a much more complete picture of the ocean floor than is now available and offer scientists rich material for further investigation.

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.