Canada running out of time on Arctic claim, expert warns

A Canadian legal expert says he fears Ottawa may miss its deadline to claim a vast area of the Arctic Ocean if it does not invest more funds and effort.

A Canadian legal expert says he fears Ottawa may miss its deadline to claim a vast area of the Arctic Ocean if it does not invest more funds and effort.

At stake is access to an area as large as the Prairie provinces that could be abundant in natural resources such as oil and gas. But Canada isn't moving quickly enough to gather the extensive scientific data needed to stake its claim with the international body that will decide ownership, says Michael Byers, the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

"I am very worried that without a serious shift in political will, and an infusion of financial resources, that Canada will miss its deadline in 2013," Byers told CBC News.

Countries that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea have 10 years to prove their continental shelves extends beyond the 370-kilometre (200-nautical-mile) outer limit currently in place. Since Canada ratified in 2003, it has until 2013 to submit scientific evidence to extend that limit.

Byers applauded a joint effort between Canada and Denmark to map the Lomonosov Ridge off northern Ellesmere Island and Greenland, but he said he's worried this country isn't doing enough work on the area extending west to the Beaufort Sea and up to the North Pole.

"That area of the Arctic Ocean has the thickest, hardest multi-year ice of anywhere in the Arctic region, and seismic work has not been done there," he said.

"We're talking about such a large expanse of frozen ocean that the actual technological challenge is comparable to a moon mission, and I'm afraid we haven't done everything that needs to be done."

Russia, which tried earlier this week to send an expedition team to the Arctic Ocean, is finalizing data in time to file its claim by the end of this year. Byers said Canada and Denmark are also working on claims, while the United States is expected to ratify the convention later this year.

On Wednesday, the Russian expedition team had to postpone its plans to work in the area after one of its ships broke down en route. The team is hoping to explore and claim a chunk of the Arctic Ocean, in part by planting a flag at the North Pole.

Byers said the Russian expedition is a case of grandstanding for a home audience, just as Ottawa does with some of its Arctic sovereignty declarations and with the ongoing disagreement with Denmark over which country owns Hans Island, a tiny rocky outcrop located between the two countries.

Peter Taksoe-Jensen, the head of legal services with the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told CBC News that the Hans Island issue is low on his country's priority list. They are more worried about a claim to the North Pole, he said.

"We, as a matter of fact, together with Canada [are] also co-operating with Russia in order to map out how the continental shelf in the North is looking," Taksoe-Jensen said.

Byers called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hold a summit with leaders of the Arctic countries, as well as Inuit populations, so that the countries' Arctic claims can proceed through diplomatic talks and not political grandstanding.