Seminar 2: New resource frontiers? Arctic and Antarctic continental shelves

10.00-17.00, Tuesday 21 September 2010, British Library, London


1000-1030 Registration
1030-1045 Introduction
Prof. Klaus Dodds, Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London
1045-1115 Polar Resources: Over 400 Years of Exploring the Final Frontiers
Dr Philip Hatfield, Curator, Canadian and Caribbean Collections, British Library
1115-1130 Coffee
1130-1215 ‘Outer limits of the continental shelf in the Polar Regions – submissions by Coastal States and the work of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf’
Dr Harald Brekke, Member of CLCS and Norwegian Petroleum Directorate
1215-1300 Claimant stances on Outer Continental Shelf in the Antarctic Treaty Area and the consequences for Antarctic collective governance
Dr Alan Hemmings, Gateway Antarctica Centre for Antarctic Studies and Research, University of Canterbury, New Zealand
1300-1400 Lunch
1400-1445 Triangulating the Russian Position: Discourse of the Arctic Front
Corine Wood-Donnelly, Research Student, Politics and History, Brunel University
1445-1530 ‘Token Arguments: The Use and Usefulness of Arctic Resources for Scandinavian Countries, Past and Present’
Prof. Sverker Sörlin, Environmental History, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
1530-1600 Comments from Discussant
Prof. Dougal Goodman FREng, Chief Executive, The Foundation for Science and Technology
1600-1700 General Discussion from Audience

Claimant stances on outer continental shelf in the Antarctic Treaty area and the consequences for Antarctic collective governance

Dr Alan Hemmings

Dr Alan D. Hemmings
Adjunct Associate Professor, Gateway Antarctica Centre for Antarctic Studies and Research, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

The Antartic Problem Today

The “Antarctic Problem” today is little changed from that evident in the immediate aftermath of World War II. That is, that as a result of the last hurrah of territorial imperialism we see a tiny subset (seven) of the world’s states claiming Antarctic territory on the basis of activities and an ethic which most other states believe, if not fundamentally inappropriate there, then certainly overtaken by events. These events include profound geopolitical transformation of the global scene, eclipse of the European colonial project, political emancipation of peoples previously subject to it, consequential appearance of new states disinclined to accept territorial assertions prior to their existence as necessarily valid and unlikely to assert them themselves, and emergence of new political order concepts such as Common Heritage.

The political dispensation ushered in with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty provided an interim balm. It imaginatively created the Article IV formula that could be all things to positions claimant. But it did not solve the issue of territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. This did not matter for the next 20 years because essentially we did very little there; what we did do was almost entirely directly under the control of a few states, and overwhelmingly non-competitive scientific research. We could bumble along in the face of few real challenges – territorial sovereignty did not really arise.

The Outer Continental Shelf

It did arise once we began to negotiate substantive resource management instruments, particularly those addressing marine living resources and minerals. The obvious marine focus of the former made that more manageable, and the latter was eventually abandoned and superseded by the Madrid Protocol that is not about resource exploitation.

An altogether more complex situation is presented in relation to continental shelf issues in the Antarctic region. Here we have rights for coastal states generated by a global agreement, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), whose realisation in the Antarctic Treaty Area requires the activation of territorial sovereignty there. The potential benefits of shelf exploitation, and the grounding of the anticipated rights outside the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) are such that claimants are neither willing to entirely forego them, or to see them folded into some collective ATS mechanism in the manner of earlier resource issues.

Coastal states are entitled under Article 76 of UNCLOS to certain rights over the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles if they can demonstrate its extent through data submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The seven territorial claimants in Antarctica see themselves as coastal states sensu UNCLOS and have variously sought to reserve rights as such in relation to the continental shelf appurtenant to their Antarctic claims.

Over the past decade, this development has been the major geopolitical issue affecting the Antarctic, presenting legal challenges around interpretations of Article IV, posing obvious difficulties for claimants in the Peninsula, and stimulating non-claimant Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs) to lodge notes with the CLCS reiterating their non-recognition of territorial claims and the significance of Article IV. But no formal consideration of it has occurred in the fora of the ATS, the very mechanism supposed to mediate Antarctic issues. Claimant states, particularly the subset recognizing each other’s claims (Australia, France, Norway, New Zealand and the United Kingdom), caucused to facilitate common stances within the wider ATS on the supposed benign nature of their approach, and consistency with Article IV. Discussions occurred across a wider group of ATCPs, particularly involving the United States, on the margins of other Antarctic meetings.

Submissions to the CLCS

The first CLCS submission by an Antarctic claimant (Australia) was lodged in November 2004. So far, the CLCS has made recommendations on only the Australian and New Zealand submissions.

Apart from Argentina, whose submission included not only outer continental shelf off its metropolitan territory, but shelf appurtenant the South Atlantic and sub-Antarctic islands (contested with the United Kingdom), and its Antarctic claim, claimants have sought to avoid CLCS consideration of Antarctic shelf data. They have done so in two ways:

  1. by including Antarctic data in their submissions, but requesting the CLCS not to consider this part for the time being; or
  2. by not including data for Antarctic continental shelf in their submissions, but reserving the right to revisit this at a future date.

However, whichever approach chosen, non-claimant Antarctic states have flagged their non-recognition of the territorial claims underpinning asserted coastal state standing, and the Article IV modus vivendi.

No such sensitivities have attached to the shelf appurtenant the sub-Antarctic islands. Two sub-Antarctic island groups (Australia’s Heard and McDonald Islands, and Macquarie Island) have generated extended continental shelf penetration of the Antarctic Treaty Area, and but for the Anglo-Argentine dispute, a third group, the South Sandwich Islands would do likewise.  Clearly, states have been more relaxed about excisions from the Antarctic Treaty Area when these are based on territory to its north. But, allowing for this, for the first time we see international sanction for the removal of area from collective governance under the ATS.


Australia will not consider itself free to mine on the sub-Antarctic shelf within the Antarctic Treaty Area, given the minerals prohibition of Article 7 of the Madrid Protocol. But there is no guarantee it will not allow other resource exploitation such as biological prospecting there, rather than leaving this to collective ATS decision.

There has been an inclination to construe the wider Antarctic continental shelf issue as merely a legal issue, which once filed as a legal issue (which in a sense is what we have seen in relation to the shelf off the continent itself) disappears as a concern. Indeed, one scholar with direct experience of the submission process has recently argued that we could have trusted entirely to Article IV and felt no inhibitions about unrestricted full submissions to the CLCS.

My sense is that the Antarctic continental shelf affair speaks to wider issues: the enduring interest of states in realising resource opportunities, notwithstanding current constraints; our collective failure to get beyond 1959’s containment of territorial claims and somehow resolve what seems (to me) an archaic hangover; the potential for nationalism (never more alert than where territory and resources are concerned) to unpick our fragile Antarctic collectivism; and the risks inherent in a system not actively responsive to the challenges of its day.

Continental shelf interests may be formally tidied away for now, but the lesson of the past decade is surely that some very live issues around rights, expectations and global equity remain to be resolved in the Antarctic.

Polar Resources: Over 400 years of exploring the final frontiers

Dr Philip Hatfield

Dr Philip Hatfield
Curator, Canadian and Caribbean Collections, British Library

Information about the Polar Regions is currently being accumulated in vast quantities by governments and scientific bodies across the globe. This is not a new phenomenon as the history of human interaction with the Arctic and Antarctic is one littered with paper, maps and other notations. The British Library collections are a significant repository of these materials, with holdings relating to the Arctic dating back as far as the sixteenth century. In the current geopolitical climate these materials can provide us with insights into how current interactions of government and corporate interests with the Polar Regions may develop.

The North West Passage has long been a subject of fascination to explorers, profiteers and geopolitically minded governments and the history of its exploration by British interests is well documented at the British Library. In sixteenth century accounts of the search for a passage to the East via the north of the Americas, by the likes of Sebastian Cabot and Martin Frobisher, we see concerns familiar to current interest in the Arctic. Rights of access to profitable trade routes and prospecting for resources are significant concerns to these explorers, set against a background of significant geopolitical change as Europe’s power balances shift in the aftermath of Columbus navigating to the Caribbean.

Nineteenth century collections in the Library bear out a similar tale, although by this point the major actors in the sphere of Arctic exploration and exploitation are the British Navy, Canadian government and Hudson’s Bay Company. The writings of Sir John Barrow are spread across the Library’s collections and his accounts of the significance of the Arctic to the British empire are punctuated with warnings about threats to sovereignty posed by business interests and geopolitical concerns raised by the actions of countries such as Russia. We also begin to clearly see the importance of science as a tool for envisioning, delimiting and enforcing control over the Arctic, as evidenced by the significant role of factually accurate illustrations and detailed cartographic charts in writings from this time.

Contemporary actions are bound to the events that produced these works. In contemporary Canada we see the remobilisation of the work of explorers such as Captain Robert McClure to underpin contemporary claims over sovereignty of Arctic resources. The recent ‘rediscovery’ of McClure’s ship H. M. S. Investigator which was lost while discovering the North West Passage sees the use of contemporary science to re-place an object well documented by nineteenth century explorers.

Historical collections are a significant resource to contemporary researchers interested in today’s Polar geopolitics. Scratching the surface of the Library’s collections reveals a long history where exploration and science are used to assert sovereignty and define borders. It also suggests cyclicality to these events and highlights the significance of wider geopolitical pressures, motivated by periods of change, to the intensification of interest in the Arctic across a broad historical transect. More information on these resources can be found here (hyperlink to: should you wish to use these collections to supplement your research.

Triangulating the Russian position: the discourse of the Arctic front

Corine Wood-Donnelly

Corine Wood-Donnelly
PhD Student (Arctic Sovereignty: World View, Strategy and the National Interest). Brunel University, London

The Arctic in International Affairs is often considered as the site of potential conflict over resources as the Arctic States clash with each other over the determination of legal boundaries and establishment of sovereignty in the circumpolar north. The contemporary conflict in the Arctic is not likely to result in anything more than a war of words, but at first glance this is not so apparent. The discourse produced by Russia in this geopolitical tussle has proven especially difficult to decipher to the casual observer of Arctic affairs and there are several elements that must be examined in order to establish the Russian position.

Russian Arctic Policy relating to current Arctic maritime affairs has a lengthy history that begins with the 1926 proclamation establishing use of the sector principle as method for dividing the Arctic and claiming all lands and islands up to the North Pole. Since this declaration, Russian Arctic policy has developed according to its national interests in response to international affairs, culminating in the 2008 publication of Foundations of State Policy of Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period to 2020 and Beyond.

Russian Identity plays an important role in anticipating the logic behind the development of Arctic affairs. The Arctic initially developed as a place of interest in Russian affairs during the Soviet era due to the efforts of Joseph Stalin. Explorers, adventurers and scientists willing to risk life and limb to achieve great feats in the Arctic were given a hero’s welcome by Stalin and the nation upon return. They were honoured in various manners with their faces displayed to the nation on propaganda posters, postage stamps and newspapers.  Through this, the Arctic became embedded in the identity of the Russian people and a part of national pride and identity.

Russia’s Role in Arctic International Relations is difficult to decipher given a combination of  history and current state practice. Though Russia articulates intention to follow international guidelines in securing territorial claims, actions sometimes appear contradictory to these statements. The Russian Federation is in effect a fledgling state, yet as heir to the Soviet Union, it inherited the seat on the Security Council, nuclear status and other treaty obligations. Yet, the actions of the Russian Federation must be analysed as discrete from the behaviour of the U.S.S.R., while also remembering that members of the current Russian leadership are remnants of Soviet era bureaucracy.

Planting of the Russian Tricolour has received considerable attention from international media, without much background information of whether the event has any political or legal significance. Through a frame analysis of the media coverage it is evident that the event received mixed reactions from observers with some promoting the event as indicative of Russian antagonism in the ‘Arctic Race’ and others dismissing it as without significance. Overall, the consensus seems to find that the while the event has no real legal significance and only some political significance, it demonstrates the substantial effort Russia is making in gathering evidence for its UNCLOS continental shelf submission.