Opinions

Alaskans should bone up to help the US catch up on Arctic policy

This week, Russia made news by resubmitting its bid to claim the mineral resources under some 460,000 square miles of Arctic territory to the United Nations committee that oversees applications by nations to extend their continental shelf rights beyond the 200- and 350-mile limit borders as defined in the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea.

The request included rights to develop subsurface resources in areas that are mostly buried deep beneath sea ice even today — names like the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleev Ridge and, perhaps most interesting to Alaska, the Chukchi Plateau.

The way these claims work is that scientists must prove that these regions, most of which are believed to have some mineral resources, are a natural continuation of the country's continental shelf. Scientists formulated back when the Law of the Sea was created a complicated set of parameters as to where those boundaries fell if a country believed its continental shelf extended beyond its 200-mile limit — a distance from shore that countries can lay claim to regardless of the underwater topography. If you go beyond 200 miles, you must show that the continental shelf continues further from your country out into the water.

This process is guided by science, and new technology has replaced lead lines and sound waves with high-powered sonar and bathymetric tools to map out what is below Arctic waters so long enshrouded by ice, especially now as it is becoming possible navigation a route between Europe and Asia. The areas are also of significant interest for natural resource development.

But here's the rub. In 2012, a scientist helping to write the case for Alaska's extension said that despite a decade of mapping, less than 10 percent of the Arctic has been checked out to date. From that, however, we know quite a bit about the Chukchi Plateau, which peaks some 500 miles offshore of Point Barrow. This region is one of the areas included in Russia's requested claim in both previous and more recent requests to the commission. That's a little close to home.

Perhaps the most distressing part about the whole situation is that not only is the United States hopelessly behind on creating Arctic policy or even a national awareness that we are an Arctic Nation, but as yet, we do not even have a seat at the table that allows us to put in requests for extensions of our continental shelf. While we are collecting extensive data to support a future claim, the United States cannot submit a request to that to the commission because we have yet to join the nations that have ratified the Law of the Sea. The United States is currently the chair of the Arctic Council, an eight-nation body that develops Arctic policy and addresses Arctic issues on an international scale. Yet, if such conversations are happening, they certainly aren't happening in earshot of those who live in the state that makes the U.S. Arctic at all.

But, later this month, a meeting of leaders from around the world will meet in Anchorage to talk about global leadership issues from climate change to development and shipping. The meeting will include industry, scientists, indigenous peoples, and, reportedly, the president of the United States.

Hopefully, this gathering will be a launching point for the U.S. to take a more proactive role in its title as Chair of the Arctic Council as well as an opportunity for federal officials to begin talking with those who live in the state and have a vested interest in making sure we have a seat at the table for decisions like who develops resources in Arctic waters beyond our immediate claimed region.

However, to be solid advocates for what serves Alaskans and Americans best, we must begin to educate ourselves on the laws that govern this region and the reasons why the United States has chosen not to play ball with the rest of the world to date. We need to understand the regions of the Arctic, because within a decade of signing onto the U.N. treaty governing international seas, countries must submit their claims for resources beyond their 200-mile limits.

Alaskans must dig beyond the surface-level hype about Russia making massive land grabs and understand the way this treaty works and defines extended continental shelves. Otherwise, we will be left scratching our heads and unable to be good advocates, especially during this time when we have, more than ever before, the attention of the nation.

Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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