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Arctic Map plots new ‘gold rush’

Researchers at Durham University have drawn up the first ever ‘Arctic Map’ to show the disputed territories that states might lay claim to in the future.

The new map design follows a series of historical and ongoing arguments about ownership, and the race for resources, in the frozen lands and seas of the Arctic.

The potential for conflicts is increasing as the search for new oil, gas and minerals intensifies.

The move to comprehensively map the region illustrates the urgent need for clear policy-making on Arctic issues – an area rich in natural resources. The Durham map shows:

1/ where boundaries have been agreed
2/ where known claims are
3/ the potential areas that states might claim
Director of Research at the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU), Martin Pratt says: “The map is the most precise depiction yet of the limits and the future dividing lines that could be drawn across the Arctic region.

“The results have huge implications for policy-making as the rush to carve up the polar region continues.

“It’s a cartographic means of showing, and an attempt to collate information and predict the way in which the Arctic region may eventually be divided up. The freezing land and seas of the Arctic are likely to be getting hotter in terms of geopolitics; the Durham map aims to assist national and international policy-makers across the world.”

It’s a year since Russia planted a flag on the seabed, underneath the North Pole, highlighting its claim to a huge chunk of the Arctic.

The Russian demands relate to a complex area of law covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). Under that law, any coastal state can claim territory 200 nautical miles (nm) from their shoreline (Exclusive Economic Zone, EEZ) and exploit the natural resources within that zone. Some coastal states have rights that extend beyond EEZ due to their continental shelf. Areas of the seabed beyond the continental shelf are referred to as ‘The Area’ and any world state – landlocked or not – has equal rights in this area.

The continental shelf is the part of a country’s landmass that extends into the sea before dropping into the deep ocean. Under UNCLOS, if a state can prove its rights, it can exploit the resources of the sea and the seabed within its territory.

Russia claims that its continental shelf extends along a mountain chain running underneath the Arctic, known as the Lomonosov Ridge. Theoretically, if this was the case, Russia might be able to claim a vast area of territory.

The IBRU map shows what is currently possible and what might be permissible in terms of territorial claims under international law. It also highlights the areas of land and sea where clashes of interest are likely.

A new survey by the US Geological Survey estimates that a fifth of the world’s undiscovered, technically-recoverable resources lie within the Arctic Circle. The Lomonosov Ridge is just one area of contention between countries. Other disputes involve Canada, USA, (Greenland) Denmark, Iceland and Norway.

The problem with claims is that they must be verified by geological, geomorphological and bathymetric analysis (sub-sea surveys), and it’s not an easy or quick process to verify claims.

The new map will help politicians to understand areas of maritime jurisdiction and the methodology employed could be vital in helping to settle future sea territorial disputes.

Conservationists want laws to protect the North Pole region and climate change is likely to bring further pressure as ice melts and the seas open up to exploration.


The Arctic map is believed to be the first published map that depicts maritime jurisdictional issues in the Arctic with geographic precision.

The Arctic map was generated using a specialist GIS (geographic information system) software tool, CARIS LOTS (from the Canadian geomatics company CARIS) which facilitates the identification of maritime jurisdictional limits and potential boundaries. The coordinates of agreed boundaries, published baselines and claimed limits were imported from databases compiled by IBRU; coastline and bathymetric data were derived from public-domain datasets published by the US government; and median lines, EEZ and potential continental shelf limits were constructed using CARIS LOTS.

Once the relevant data were assembled, a base map was prepared using the Polar Stereographic projection, which is centred on the North Pole. The final map was prepared with cartographic support from Chris Orton of the Geography Department's Design and Imaging Unit.

The map is available for download from the IBRU website The map is accompanied by a set of briefing notes providing additional information on these issues.


The IBRU works to enhance the resources available for the peaceful resolution of problems associated with international boundaries on land and at sea, including their delimitation, demarcation and management. Since its foundation in 1989 IBRU has built up an international reputation as a leading source of information and expertise on boundary and territorial issues around the world.

IBRU provides research and consultancy services, training workshops, conferences and publications. The IBRU website also includes a searchable boundary news archive, a publications 'purchase and download' service, and links to other boundary-related websites and online resources. IBRU is part of the Politics-State-Space research cluster in the Geography Department at Durham University.

IBRU’s 20th anniversary conference the State of Sovereignty and will be held in Durham University 1-3 April 2009.

The Arctic Circle (66° 33' 39? north) marks the southern extremity of the polar day (24 hour sunlit day, often referred to as the "midnight sun") and polar night (24 hour sunless night).

Claire Whitelaw | alfa
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