Michael Byers and Ron Macnab, Ottawa Citizen, May 1, 2009
The two big red ships sailed in tandem through the Arctic Ocean, the first breaking the ice so that the second could use its sensitive seismic equipment to map the sediments of the seabed.
The ships then switched position when the noise produced in particularly thick ice interfered with the seismic equipment. This allowed state-of-the-art sonar equipment on the first ship to be used to map the ridges and valleys of the ocean floor, while the second ship took over the still all-important task of breaking the ice.
Last summer’s partnership between Canada’s Louis S. St. Laurent and the United States’ Healy was a showcase for scientific co-operation — but only up to a point.
In a strange difference of approach, the information obtained by Canada has been kept secret, while the U.S. data are posted on the Internet.
The two icebreakers spent most of last August working together in an area of the Beaufort Sea known as the Canada Basin, hundreds of miles north of the Alaska-Yukon border.
This summer, they will return to the area for another six weeks.
The mission is a priority for both Canada and the United States. Each country might be able to claim sovereign rights over large portions of the seabed, which potentially contain many billions of dollars worth of oil and natural gas.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states are automatically entitled to the resources of the continental shelf within 200 nautical miles of shore. They may also have sovereign rights that extend further, if the seabed beyond 200 nautical miles constitutes a “natural prolongation” of the shelf closer in.
The evidence of a natural prolongation depends on scientific data concerning the character of the sediments and shape of the ocean floor — the two kinds of information being collected by the Louis S. St. Laurent and Healy, respectively.
After a country obtains the relevant evidence, it is submitted — along with a map delimiting the claim — to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for approval.
A country has 10 years after it ratifies the UN Convention to make its submission. Since Canada ratified in 2003, it has until 2013 to file. The United States has not yet ratified but will probably do so shortly. Its current mapping efforts certainly point toward that, and also to an early claim.
In the circumstances, there is every incentive for the two countries to co-operate: both stand to benefit; and each possesses just one heavy icebreaker for a task that requires two.
Yet the co-operation between the Louis S. St. Laurent and Healy is governed by an agreement that allows data collected by the U.S. vessel to be published, while data collected by the Canadian ship is kept out of the public domain.
The United States has a long-standing policy of promptly releasing seabed data, and not just from its icebreakers. Oceanographic observations collected by submarines are also made public, including data that were acquired during the Cold War.
When operational circumstances permit, naval submarines will even travel to specific locations to gather data at the request of civilian scientists.
The Canadian government also used to release its oceanographic observations. But a mantle of secrecy has recently descended upon Canada’s seabed mapping — both from equipment on the sea-ice and from the Louis S. St. Laurent. It’s a nonsensical change of policy. Submissions filed by Canada, the United States and other countries should be based on common data sets that reflect the most complete, and therefore most accurate scientific understanding of the seabed.
In 1996, scientists from all five Arctic Ocean countries gathered in St. Petersburg for a workshop on the continental shelf. They called on their governments to combine data sets — in the interests of science, and in order to avoid maritime delimitation disputes that could lead to conflict.
In a statesmanlike speech delivered in Whitehorse this spring, Canadian foreign minister Lawrence Cannon emphasized the need for more co-operation among Arctic countries. His colleagues in Natural Resources Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada — the departments conducting the mapping — should take heed.
Concealing data will not change the sediments and shape of the seabed, but it might engender suspicion about Canada’s methods and motives. It’s time to follow the U.S. lead — and post our science for all to see.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Ron Macnab is retired from the Canadian Geological Survey. They are principal investigators with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 27 Canadian universities and five federal departments.