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U.S., Canada Take First Good Look at Far Reaches of Continental Shelf

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

A joint American-Canadian cruise exploring the frigid Arctic Ocean has mapped broad swaths of the extended continental shelf for the first time, scientists reported Thursday.

While the researchers divulged few details, saying it will take time to analyze the data, they said they had discovered a massive seamount and what could be an extinct underwater volcano during the 41-day mission.

Debbie Hutchinson, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey still aboard the Canadian Coast Guard's Louis S. St-Laurent, said the group used advanced technology to precisely map unexplored territory.

"From the seismic data, we're seeing features that we hadn't imagined existed," Hutchinson said in a telephone news conference with U.S. and Canadian reporters. "It's a very promising data set and one that will keep us busy for many months to come."

Researchers on the St-Laurent suspect they've detected an underwater volcano, while scientists aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy have mapped in three dimensions a seamount rising 3,600 feet from the seafloor. It is 16 miles long and 4 miles wide and lies roughly 700 miles north of Alaska.

The joint mission, in which the two ships took turns breaking the sea ice and collecting data, is part of an effort by both countries to determine how much of the extended continental shelf belongs to them. Under an international treaty process, both countries must lay claim to this territory -- which is likely to boast considerable oil and gas reserves -- by 2013.

"It makes more sense to do it together, in a friendly manner," said Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt. "We are all excited about the potential that is out there. We are really in an area that no one has explored before."

The exploration, which began in early August, is the second U.S.-Canadian joint cruise in the Arctic.

The Canadians are collecting seismic data while the Americans are taking bathymetric data, which maps the contours of the seafloor.

David A. Balton, the deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries, said the United States has now made five mapping expeditions to the extended continental shelf and "while all of them have been successful, this one has gone just far beyond our expectations."

The U.S. and Canadian governments are likely to have competing claims in the Arctic, and the value of the resources that lie both on and beneath the shelf could be increasingly important as warmer temperatures make the area more accessible. Balton said the data were not being collected to resolve any potential boundary conflicts, but rather to determine "how far the outer continental shelf extends from shore."

The researchers did encounter some technical problems as they ventured to the far north. At one point the St-Laurent's seismic equipment failed, so the Canadians decided to break ice for the U.S. ship instead of collecting their own data.

Maggie Hayes, who chairs the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Task Force, said that while the data being collected now may help determine what sort of resources will be extracted in the Arctic in the future, that would not be for several years.

"Certainly there's an economic element in this," Hayes said. "There are resources that we'll have to make decisions about managing and conserving, when the time comes."


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