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Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 12:18 UK

Which bits of the ocean bed does the UK want?

The Magazine answers...

map of world shopping seabeds of British interest
The UK has submitted claim for an area off Ascension Island
Made joint submission for an area in the Bay of Biscay
Discussing joint claims in the Hattan-Rockall area
Considering the Falklands
'Reserved the right' to submit claim to seabed off Antarctica

Scientists say they have drawn up the first detailed map to show the areas of seabed in the Arctic that could become the subject of international border disputes. The UK has not laid a claim there, but which bits of the sea floor is it interested in?

Traditionally, territorial disputes and flag planting has been more about land ownership than sea sovereignty.

But last year Russia planted a flag on the seabed of the North Pole.

And according to researchers at Durham University, potential conflicts over sea ownership are gaining momentum in the race for resources.

“Fewer than a half of the world’s maritime boundaries have been agreed, so there is big scope for disagreements,” says Martin Pratt, director of research at Durham University's International Boundaries Research Unit. He hopes the map – which is based on historical and ongoing disputes - will have “huge implications for policy making.”

So which bits of the sea floor is the UK interested in – and how does it go about claiming them?

All coastal states have rights over the resources up to 200 nautical miles from their shoreline under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Convention, says Mr Pratt.

But some nations are able to extend their claims as a result of their landmasses - or continental shelf - extending into the sea. If a state can prove its rights, it can exploit the resources of the sea and the seabed within its territory.

Kenneth Hitchen, marine and petroleum geologist from the British Geological Survey, says the difficulty arises in areas where more than one country submits claims because of overlapping. Defining, interpreting and verifying submissions involves costly, complex and time-consuming sub-sea surveys and is "very, very complicated".

Seabeds beyond the continental shelf are referred to as "The Area" and any world state - landlocked or not - has equal rights.

British interests

According to Mr Pratt, Britain currently has five main areas of seabed interest.

The Foreign Office has already submitted two claims to the United Nations. The first was a joint claim with France, Spain and the Irish Republic for the continental shelf in part of the Bay of Biscay, submitted in 2006. Mr Pratt thinks this should be able to reach a settlement.

“The countries still need to agree on their boundaries within the area, but they are waiting for the UN to approve their definition of the physical edge of the continental shelf first,” he says.

The second was submitted in May 2008 and centres on Ascension Island, a volcanic island 1,000 miles from the African mainland which sits just to one side of the mid-Atlantic ridge. Mr Pratt says it is an enormous isolated area, larger than the UK, but as no other states are involved, the ruling should rest on the degree to which Britain’s claim is valued scientifically.

There is "not a cat in hell's chance of finding oil", Mr Hitchen says.

The Foreign Office expects the UN Commission for the Limits of the Continental Shelf to formally review this submission in August.

Britain is also in discussions with Iceland, Ireland and Denmark - on behalf of the Faroe Islands - about a joint claim in the Hattan-Rockall area of the North East Atlantic, off the west coast of Scotland.

Diplomatic sensitivities

A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

The other two areas that Britain has its eye on are areas off the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and a large area of the remote seabed off Antarctica.

Britain’s interest in the British Antarctic Territory – which a Foreign Office spokeswoman stressed was not a formal submission to the UN “although we reserve the right to do so” – has come under fire from environmentalists. The area is protected from mineral exploitation by the 1991 Antarctic Treaty.

But the claim on continental shelf around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia is also fraught with diplomatic sensitivities.

The Foreign Office says the UK has no doubts about its sovereignty - nor its right to submit a claim to extend the continental shelf - and has discussed it with Argentina "with a view to making a joint submission without prejudice to rival sovereignty claims."

Although oil explorations in the past have proved expensive and unfruitful, Mr Hitchens says there is still speculation about whether the area is host to a hotbed of oil.

So is this interest in the seabed all about mineral rights?

Mr Pratt says although a number of factors are driving territorial claims back on to the political agenda, the search for oil and gas definitely plays a role.

“Energy security is driving interest - the UK wants to be able to control its own energy supply, and as the price of petrol escalates, the government is feeling pressure from the public."

And Mr Hitchen says most countries will claim as much as they can.

"In 100 years the whole globe will be carved up," he says. "Russia's flag [in the Arctic] was just the first shot."


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