Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

Denmark: Seabed Floor Expedition to Determine Extent of Territory

(Aug. 10, 2012) The six nations that border the Arctic Sea (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States) each claim territory 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) into the sea as exclusive economic zones. If a nation can demonstrate that the continental shelf extends from its shore beyond the 200 nautical-mile limit, it can assert rights for up to 350 nautical miles (about 403 miles). Denmark is trying to accomplish that by sending the Swedish ice-breaking vessel Oden to carry researchers north of Greenland, toward the North Pole, to take measurements. (Peter Stanners, Arctic Expedition to Prove Territory Claim, THE COPENHAGEN POST (Aug. 3, 2012).)

The claim would have to be made by 2014, ten years after Denmark ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which the rights of countries to extend jurisdiction over seafloor territories are defined. (Id.; United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982: Overview and Full Text, OCEANS & LAW OF THE SEA: UNITED NATIONS (last updated Nov. 9, 2011) [the United States is not a party to the Convention].)

One reason for the interest is that the Arctic Sea floor is considered to be rich in natural resources, including perhaps 25% of the earth's remaining oil and natural gas, according to an estimate from the United States Geological Survey. (Who Owns the Arctic Ocean?, GEOLOGY.COM (last visited Aug. 6, 2012).) Many nations are interested in extending territorial control in the region, including Canada, Norway, and Russia, as well as the United States. (Id.; Stanners, supra.)

The new Danish expedition, which follows the submerged Lomonosov Ridge, is the third one mounted to the area by Denmark. Collecting data in the region is difficult, with ice extending down several meters in some areas. The head of the expedition, Christian Marcussen, explained the need for this additional attempt and expressed optimism about the outcome, stating, “[w]e have holes in our data that we need to fill before we submit our claim. … We feel pretty sure that our argument is correct and that Denmark can make the claim outside the 200 nautical mile limit.” (Stanners, supra; for a map of the region showing the Ridge, see Russia Seeks to Claim Arctic Territory, GOOGLE IMAGES (last visited Aug. 8, 20120).)

Environmental groups, notably Greenpeace, have raised objections to the oil exploration that has already begun in the Arctic Sea, claiming that it results in chemicals being released into the natural marine environment. Jon Burgwald of Greenpeace argues:

If Denmark has a claim to the North Pole they must use it to place pressure on the other arctic countries to seek a common solution in which the area around the north pole [sic] will continue to belong to everyone as an unspoiled area of natural beauty for the whole world. (Stanners, supra.)