Thursday, October 21, 2004

Denmark wants to claim the North Pole in hopes of finding oil and gas in the ocean floor below, upsetting other countries, including the United States, Canada and Russia, that also want a piece of the resource-rich Arctic.

To establish its claim, Danish scientists are trying to prove that Greenland — a semi-independent Danish territory — is connected to the Arctic ice by the 1,100-mile underwater Lomonosov Ridge.

If Arctic seabed mapping supports an underwater connection, then “maybe there is a chance that the North Pole could become Danish,” Cabinet minister Helge Sander said earlier this month.

“Denmark is only one of a number of circumpolar nations, including Canada, that have embarked [on] a program of seabed mapping to delineate the outer limits of their respective continental shelves,” said Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman Reynald Doiron. “It would be premature by any country to speculate on the outcome of this work.”

A provision in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows countries to claim waters beyond the established 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone boundary.

To become eligible, a country must submit detailed scientific evidence proving a “natural prolongation” of its continental shelf to a U.N. commission.

Once a country ratifies the Law of the Sea treaty, it has 10 years to submit a claim under the provision. Members who ratified the treaty before 1999 have until 2009. Denmark is expected to ratify the treaty soon, joining Canada, Russia and Norway. The United States has yet to ratify the treaty.

Only Russia has submitted a formal claim to a portion of the Arctic Ocean, but the commission rejected it.

“It is our understanding that Denmark is engaged primarily in scientific assessment and has not reached any conclusions on this,” said State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez. “We will follow this issue with great interest.”

The North Pole region is attracting new interest partly because of the steady shrinking and thinning of the ice cap, raising the prospect that the Arctic one day could become a major shipping thoroughfare.

“We are quite confident that the data shows the decrease in the extent of sea ice, especially in the summer,” said Richard Moritz, principal oceanographer at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center.

“That makes certain kinds of transportation easier because you don’t have to deal with the ice,” he said.

These changes also could make it easier to drill for oil and gas on the Arctic seabed.

But constant darkness during four months of the year and subzero temperatures present obstacles for simple scientific data collection, said Jim Gardner, a research professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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