What Lies Beneath: In April, the Cook Islands Submitted a Claim for an Area of Seabed Some 2,500 Times Its Total Land Area. the Claim Was One of 51 Made to the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf before the May Deadline. at Stake Is Potentially Billions of Pounds in Mineral Resources, but the Question of Who Owns What Is Far from Clear

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When Russia dispatched a mini-submarine to plant a titanium flag four kilometres beneath the North Pole in 2007, the gesture was interpreted in some quarters as being tongue in cheek, Soon enough, however, it emerged that no humour was intended: the Russians were perfectly serious about laying claim to the seabed under the North Pole. They even produced rock samples that, they argued, proved that the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea structure that runs across the Arctic Ocean, was part of Mother Russia.

But the Russians aren't alone. Others also have their eyes on the Arctic seabed, which, according to US Geological Survey estimates, holds a quarter of the world's undiscovered reserves of fossil fuels. And around the world, just about every nation with a coastline is now staking a claim to ocean seabed hundreds of kilometres from dry land.

In a peculiarly 21st-century dash for valuable undersea real estate, up to 50 countries have submitted evidence of the extended seabed beyond their coastline to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a panel created under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLS) to review and certify the legitimacy of such claims.

Traditionally, under Article 36 of the Law of the Sea, coastal states are granted exclusive oil and gas rights to waters within 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) of their coastlines. But claims may be extended to up to 350 nautical miles if nations can provide Scientific proof that the undersea continental plate is a natural extension of their territory. All seabed beyond these areas of national jurisdiction is known as the 'Area', international waters that belong, according to the UN, to the common heritage of humanity, and are administered by the International Seabed Authority.

May marked the deadline for those countries who ratified the UNCLS before 1999 to submit claims for ownership of the seabed. Those who ratified the convention more recently, or have yet to do so, have up to ten years to submit their own case. The one notable absentee from this activity is the USA, which has yet to ratify the treaty.

However. while this might sound nice and straightforward, it's just the beginning of the ambiguities that plague this whole process. 'A lot of international lawyers disagree with the view that nations had to claim it now or lose it, but in some ways that is the case,' says Martin Pratt, director of research at the International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University. "Governments didn't want to miss the deadline in case it compromised their claims. It's a murky legal area.'

Although the waters above the claimed areas will remain international, the Law of the Sea mandates that states can win the sole right to exploit anything on or beneath the seabed, including creatures that crawl along it, if they can convince the commission that the zones are a natural extension of their dry, landmasses.

'It isn't an extension of sovereignty, it's only an extension of sovereign fights for the purposes of exploring and exploiting its resources,' says Hariharan Pakshi Rajan, a senior officer at the UN's Division for Affairs and the Law of the Sea.

Scientifically, the natural prolongation of the land under the sea can go up to the end of the continental margin. Mapping has involved plotting submarine contours that mark the outer edges of the continental shelf and establishing the foot of an underwater continental slope, thousands of metres down. Criteria are moveable, to reflect the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences in the geological and geomorphological characteristics of the seabed. 'Governments are allowed to review submissions of other states, but the costs of surveying are so prohibitive that unless a state has acquired data, they couldn't possibly afford to go and revisit a site, although they can question the data,' says Pratt. …