Sea borders redrawn for new map

2010-05-12 20:45

Oslo - Coastal nations have quietly taken over areas of seabed totalling almost the size of Australia since 2002 and far more is up for grabs in one of the biggest redrawings of the world map in history, experts said.

A year after a May 13 2009, deadline for states to outline the outer limit of their continental shelves, a UN commission is struggling with a vast backlog of claims to regions such as the Arctic that may contain oil or minerals.

"It's going on quietly...but we must speed up the work," said Harald Brekke, a vice chairman of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf which is overseeing what is meant to be the final fixing of maritime boundaries.

"In the worst case it could be 20-30 years which is not acceptable," he said on Wednesday of the current pace by the part-time commission.

Under existing laws, coastal states control a zone 200 nautical miles (370 km) off their coasts. The new round will fix rights to exploit the seabed in places where a continental shelf, usually of shallow waters, extends further offshore.

The size of the shifts is comparable to momentous changes to the world map after the end of European colonial rule, said Joan Fabres, head of the UN Environment Programme's Shelf Programme based at the GRID-Arendal foundation in Norway.

"This is a much more peaceful and ordered process," he said.

Seabed larger than land

Brekke estimated for Reuters that the Commission has, in work since 2002, approved areas totalling 6m km² for states including France, Britain, Australia, Mexico and Norway.

Australia's land area is about 7.7m km². And Brekke said the total areas claimed so far by more than 50 states added up to 27m km² - an area slightly bigger than the entire North American continent.

Some island nations, such as the Cook Islands, Palau, the Seychelles or Micronesia, could gain control of seabeds hundreds of times the size of their land, Fabres said. His group advises developing nations.

Control of the seas has gradually extended offshore. In the 18th century, for instance, it was set at three miles (5km) - the distance a cannonball could be fired from the coast.

So far, recommendations by the Commission have been for uncontroversial areas - it lacks powers to rule on overlapping claims such as in the Arctic, the South China Sea or the Falkland Islands disputed by Britain and Argentina.

About 50 states have submitted data about their continental shelves. A few, including the United States, are not bound to do so because they have not ratified the UN Law of the Sea.

The Arctic, for instance, may become more accessible because of a thaw caused by global warming. Many experts are urging caution following BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico linked to the fatal explosion on a Transocean rig.

In a symbolic claim in 2007, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole in waters 4 261m deep. That is beyond the limit of current drilling technology - Transocean holds the water depth record for drilling in the seabed in waters 3 051m deep.