While maps can certainly enlighten and educate, they can just as easily be used to support certain political narratives. With this in mind, Durham University’s Centre for Borders Research (IBRU) has updated its map showing territorial claims to the Arctic seabed following a revised bid submitted by Russia to the United Nations on August 4. The decision to release the map was not made lightly.
The map of “Maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic region” by IBRU depicts the claims to Arctic seabed resources that have been made, or could potentially be made, by Canada, Denmark, Russia, Norway, and the USA. In addition, IBRU has also created a simplified map showing the old and new Russian claims from 2001 and 2015 – and the differences between them.
The myth of a “Cold War”
We created our first Arctic map in 2008 to dispel reports that the region was about to erupt in a “new Cold War”. As the map’s notes explain, nothing could be further from truth. Since 2001, Arctic states have been engaging in scientific research – often in cooperation with each other – to gather the data that would enable them to make submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).
The CLCS is empowered by the UN to assess whether areas of the seabed meet a complicated series of bathymetric and geological criteria which can permit coastal states to claim exclusive rights to the non-living resources of the seabed, beyond 200 nautical miles from coastal baselines.
The original Arctic map denoted the maximum claims that could be made given the scientific data that was then publicly available. The map’s accompanying notes clearly stated, however, that these were hypothetical maximums and that the actual extent of each state’s extended continental shelf would likely be reduced once more data were gathered.
States around the world have been making these submissions, with some 77 filed to date for seas ranging from Oceania to the Caribbean. The CLCS has reached decisions on about a quarter of them. In the Arctic, Norway’s submission has been approved, Denmark’s is under review, Canada’s is being prepared, and Russia has just deposited a revised submission after its original 2001 submission was returned with a request for more detailed scientific evidence. The United States is the sole Arctic state frozen out of the process because it has failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The new Russian claim adds two new areas and subtracts one from the original 2001 claim. In total, it adds about 103,000 square kilometres to what had been a claim of 1,325,000 square kilometres. The new Russian claim crosses into the Canadian and Danish sides of the North Pole for the first time. While this may have symbolic impact (especially for Canadians and Danes), it has no legal significance.
In short, little is actually happening on the international seabed – in the Arctic or elsewhere – other than states using science to claim the limited economic rights that are reserved for them by international law.
These filings should therefore be celebrated as reaffirmations of the will toward peace and stability, rather than feared as unilateral acts of aggression. All too often, however, states’ CLCS filings have been interpreted as territorial “land grabs” (or, more correctly, “sea grabs”). The most recent Russian claim has been met with a predictable round of defensive sabre rattling.
The IBRU map may inadvertently aid this impression. Solid lines and bright colours imply that vast areas of ocean are being claimed by individual states as sovereign territory, while overlapping areas appear as spaces where conflict already exists. News stories that reprint the map rarely include the notes that explain what its colours and shadings actually mean. The medium of the map – which appears to communicate a world of states “owning” territory and keeping others out – has in some senses overtaken the message of states working together.
The Russians are coming … or are they?
In the context of Russia’s expansion into non-Arctic territories (notably in Crimea), the revised Russian claim has struck the media as another tale of Russian expansion. Provocative headlines noted that, with the filing, “Russia claims North Pole for itself” in a “Move to seize oil and gas rights”.
Having drawn the revised map, IBRU had a difficult decision: Do we issue a new map and potentially add fuel to this misleading narrative or do we wait for the story to die down so that lawyers, diplomats and scientists can work quietly with the data?
We soon reached a conclusion that, even when they misinform, maps provide an opportunity for education. Therefore, IBRU chose to release not just the revised version of the general map, but also the second map showing the difference between the two Russian claims.
Recent cartographic theorists have stressed that maps are not the static representations that they purport to be. Rather, they are living documents that are remade with each reading.
In one reading, the IBRU Arctic map may “prove” that there is a “scramble for the Arctic”. But the map may also be read as testament to the world’s commitment to the rule of law and the orderly settlement of disputes. The stories within – and about – the IBRU Arctic map illustrate not just how we think about the Arctic and its resources, but also how we think about the map as a tool of science, politics, and law.