Quirks & Quarks

Canada is using science to lay claim to the North Pole

Central to the claim is where a country's extended continental shelf ends, which can only be proved by detailed sub-sea geological work

Our claim depends on connecting sub-sea geology to our northern landscape

Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent (foreground) and United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy working together in the Arctic Ocean to acquire data to help map the seafloor. (Geological Survey of Canada/Natural Resources Canada)

After years of gruelling survey and mapping work, last month, Canada finally submitted its scientific argument to the UN justifying our territorial claim to a huge amount of the Arctic seabed, including an area around the North Pole. It could add an additional 1.2 million square kilometres to Canada and give us ownership of the valuable resources beneath the seabed. 

"The science is strong," said Mary-Lynn Dickson, one of the scientists who took part in the project. "What strikes me about it is that we have different data sets that all point to the same story that the area of the continental shelf we've defined in the Arctic ocean is a natural prolongation of our land mass."

10 years and 17 expeditions

Central to our claim and rival claims by other polar nations including the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway, is where the country's extended continental shelf ends, which can only be proved by detailed sub-sea geological work.

Ship’s personnel on the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent deploying a geophysical instrument in the Arctic Ocean (Geological Survey of Canada/Natural Resources Canada)

The continental shelf is the extension of a landmass that extends underneath shallow water and ends far offshore where it transitions to the deep ocean floor. Altogether, 17 Arctic expeditions took place between 2006 and 2016 to map the outer limit of our continental shelf in the Arctic.

"It was a very complex program that involved surveys with ice breakers and autonomous underwater vehicles collecting geophysical data and bathymetric data to measure the structure of the seafloor, the subsoil and the water depth," said Dickson, an oceanographer and the director of The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Program at Natural Resources Canada.

The team also dredged from the Arctic to collect rock samples which were consistent with samples of onshore rock, adding evidence that the material is indeed part of our landmass.  

Expedition challenges

Dickson recalled the challenging weather conditions of working in the Arctic.

"The temperature was around freezing even in the summertime, and you could get blizzards when you're working on the deck of the ship, or fog, if you're trying to send a helicopter off to try to find the best lead through the ice."

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) used at an ice camp to map Canada’s continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean (Geological Survey of Canada/Natural Resources Canada)

Scientists had to work around the clock to make the most of the few weeks they had when the ice was at its minimum. But still, they had to plow through three meters of ice to gather data using two ice breakers.

The lead ice breaker was used to break the ice in front so the second one could gather data void of engine noise and signal interference.

According to Dickson, it's going to take another five to ten years for the UN Committee to review Canada's submission and make recommendations.

By the end of the long process, the map of Canada could look very different than it does today.



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