Defining Canada's Continental Shelf

Article 76 of UNCLOS defines the conditions under which a country can determine the delimitation for an extended Continental Shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.

The Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) has worked for several years on a project to determine the outer limits of Canada’s Extended Continental Shelf, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

(UNCLOS) is a treaty that sets out the legal framework for ocean activities and is broadly accepted internationally: 162 states are party to the Convention. At the Convention's core is the establishment of maritime zones and the rights and duties of states within them. The maritime zones as outlined by UNCLOS are: the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf, the high seas and the "Area" (seabed outside national jurisdiction).

In some cases the continental shelf may extend beyond 200 nautical miles. UNCLOS article 76 sets out the process by which a coastal state may define the outer limits of its shelf. This involves preparing a submission to an international expert body established by UNCLOS and known as the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Outer limits established by Canada on the basis of the Commission's recommendations are final and binding. Defining the extended continental shelf will provide certainty about geographic area in which Canada may exercise its sovereign rights over the natural resources on and under the seabed.

Canada's Work to Define its Extended Continental Shelf

In the 1990s, Canada did some preliminary scientific work to identify areas that would need to be surveyed. After becoming party to the Convention in 2003, Canada began to prepare its submission to the Commission to define its continental shelf in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Canada's Extended Continental Shelf Program is a collaboration of the Canadian Hydrographic Service of Fisheries & Oceans Canada, the Geological Survey of Natural Resources Canada and Foreign Affairs & International Trade Canada. Canada intends to file its submission with the Commission in December 2013.

Canada's efforts to define its continental shelf have resulted in one of the world's most interesting and far-reaching undersea investigations and involved extensive national and international collaboration. The scientific projects have benefitted from unprecedented technological innovation in ocean and seabed data acquisition technology, particularly in the high Arctic, such as novel use of autonomous underwater vehicles.

An AUV is recovered from the Arctic depths by a mechanical lift after a successful under-ice mission. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) have been tested and proven during UNCLOS surveying efforts, particularly in the Arctic Ocean.

Scientific projects

The exciting work undertaken by Canadian hydrographers and scientists as part of Canada's Extended Continental Shelf program extends to:

The Atlantic

Surveys have been completed in the Atlantic Ocean, off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, to determine the areas where Canada’s Continental Shelf extends beyond 200 nautical miles.

Eastern Arctic

  • An on-ice expedition, called LORITA (Lomonosov Ridge Test of Appurtenance), was carried out on Lomonosov Ridge by Canada and Denmark in the winter of 2006. A refraction seismic survey and bathymetry spot soundings were conducted from Canadian Forces Station Alert.
  • A refraction seismic survey of the Alpha Ridge, called ARTA (Alpha Ridge Test of Appurtenance), was carried out from Eureka, on Ellesmere Island, as well as a through-ice bathymetric survey from an ice-camp at the mouth of Nansen Sound in the winter of 2008.
  • A Canadian-Danish through-ice sounding program was carried out in the winter of 2009, using helicopters from an ice camp located on the Ward Hunt ice shelf.
  • A Canadian-Danish aero-gravity and aero-magnetic program between Ellesmere Island and the North Pole, was flown from Eureka, CFS Alert and Station Nord in the winter of 2009.
  • Canadian-Danish seismic and bathymetric survey aboard the Oden collected data on Lomonosov Ridge in the summer of 2007.
  • Bathymetry surveys and gravity readings were conducted from Borden Island in 2010.

Western Arctic

  • Project Cornerstone began in 2008 with the goal of developing the equipment and methodology necessary to collect high-resolution, hydrographic-quality, bathymetric data of the Arctic seabed in harsh weather conditions. In this joint project of CHS, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Natural Resources Canada, AUVs were used to collect bathymetry data to augment previously collected spot soundings and seismic, gravity and magnetic information. Work began on Cornerstone in 2008. After AUV trials on the West Coast, the first Arctic mission was carried out in April 2010. The second mission was conducted in 2011 following further testing in the St. Lawrence River.
  • Bathymetric and test seismic surveys were conducted in the Canada Basin from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent in 2006 and 2007.
  • In a joint project with the U.S., seismic and bathymetric surveys of the Canada Basin were conducted in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 from the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy.
  • A total of 170 sonobuoys were used to collect information on the velocity of sound waves in sediments during these surveys.

The Canadian Coast Guard’s Louis S. St-Laurent and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy carry out seismic and bathymetric surveys in the Arctic in the summer of 2008.

Science writer Hans Böggild has described the 2011 joint Canada - US survey using the two giant icebreakers, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy and the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent. The technology and techniques of the Canada-U.S. mission are described in several papers presented at the 2010 Canadian Hydrographic Association Conference. An article on the United States Geological Survey website also describes technology used on the Healy and the Louis S. St-Laurent.

CHS surveying efforts in the Arctic, spanning 1998 to 2010, are described in a series of newsletters, written by Ronald Verrall, with support from Defence Research and Development, Canada (DRDC) in Halifax.

International Scientific Cooperation

Defining the continental shelf has entailed significant international collaboration with experts and officials from Canada working with colleagues from the United States and Denmark as well as Russia. Experts and officials from these countries, as well as Norway, have met regularly to discuss continental shelf matters.

Canada has worked particularly closely with the US and Denmark, having carried out six cooperative surveys with Denmark between 2007 and 2009 and four joint surveys with the United States in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The black line indicates the exclusive economic zones of each of the Arctic Ocean coastal states. The continental shelves of Canada, the US and Denmark (Greenland) are expected to lie beyond this line. The purple line indicates Russia's potential extended continental shelf while the white arrow points to Norway's extended continental shelf. (Note: for illustrative purposes only.)

Canada also contributes the bathymetric data it has collected as part of the Extended Continental Shelf Program to the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean.