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In dark blue you see the maximum extension of the Danish field of interest north of Greenland.


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An ocean of possibilities

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The Juridical Continental Shelf a new term in international law


An ocean of possibilities

Denmark can extend its field of interest north of Greenland, but the demand is a thorough scientific documentation. Research in the Polar Sea is a logistical and financial challenge, but a group of scientists is planning an interdisciplinary project that will provide the necessary knowledge and investigate what the ice masses are hiding.

By Poul-Erik Philbert

- Today the economic interests in the Polar Sea are perhaps not overwhelming. But this does not mean that it is uninteresting to Denmark and Greenland to try the possibility of extending the field of interest north of Greenland, as the new Maritime Law Convention allows for. No one can know to which extent the technological development will make it possible in the future to utilize possible raw materials in the area.

Says Jørgen Taagholt, the Danish Polar Center. Together with a group of scientists Jørgen Taagholt has taken the initiative to an interdisciplinary research project, Greenland Arctic Ocean Shelf Project, GRASP that will gather knowledge about the unexplored area north of Greenland.

From 200 to 350 nautical miles
These years, the world's coastal nations are implementing the 200 exclusive, economic maritime zone, which according to the UN's Law of Sea Convention entitles to the resources in the area. It has already happened to Denmark, and also the present fishing zone around Greenland will be changed to an exclusive, economic zone within a foreseeable future.

But the Law of Sea Convention also makes it possible to extend the 200 nautical miles boundary so that the coastal nation gets the right to the sea floor resources out to about 350 nautical miles. If Denmark is going to use this right in the Polar Sea, it is a demand that the nation presents scientific documentation about the sea floor and the continental shelf in order to have the extension approved. The problem is that today we do not have this knowledge.

Scanty knowledge
During recent years, Danish scientists have already been on the wings over the area north of Greenland. Both The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) and the National Survey and Cadastre have undertaken measurements from aircraft and gathered knowledge about geology and soundings. But this can not conceal that the Danish effort in the Polar Sea has been extremely modest:

- We do not know much about ice cover, ice thickness, salinity, sea temperatures and current velocity. We know even less about the geological conditions at the sea floor, the sediment layers and the possible mineral resources, and we have only a limited knowledge about biological conditions. The knowledge we possess first of all comes from researchers from abroad. It consists of measurements from satellites and aircraft and of data gathered from drift ice stations and from submarines, Jørgen Taagholt says.

GRASP - a new initiative
The exploration of the Polar Sea is interesting not only because it can support a Danish claim for extension of the national field of interest. The scientists are itching to get started because they see many obvious research possibilities in the area.

Thus, there are several good reasons why a group of scientists, supported by the Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland, has got together to make preparations for a project, Greenland Arctic Ocean Shelf Project, GRASP, to speed up an interdisciplinary research in the Polar Sea. At the moment, a scientific plan is being drafted for the possible activities in the area, and the group is open to new participants, who wish to contribute to interdisciplinary research implementation.

It is urgent
It is very urgent to start the research. The claim for an extension of the continental shelf is to be presented in the UN not later than 10 years after Denmark has ratified the Law of the Sea Convention. But the enormous ice masses which so far have been a physical and economic obstacle to Danish research demand that you stake more than usual on both time and money.

The sea ice north of Greenland is particularly thick - approx. 4-6 meters - contrary to the central parts of the Polar Sea, where it is 'only' 2-4 meters. This makes it almost impossible to penetrate the ice masses, and no icebreaker has yet navigated along the north coast of Greenland.

The task is so demanding that it is necessary to rely on international cooperation. The group behind GRASP is hoping for a cooperation with Swedish and German research institutions who have the polar research vessels Oden and Polarstern at their disposal and who have shown an interest in projects in the Polar sea. In addition, an offer from the US National Science Foundation to use a submarine equipped for research might turn out to be valuable.

The Danes are pointing out that Denmark and Greenland could offer a drift ice station open to both Danish, Greenlandic and foreign scientists and supplement the research from ships and submarines.