Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Antarctica Seabed - the saga continues

After the recent hullabaloo about Britain's submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding the seabed attached to its frozen territorial claim in Antarctica, Argentina and Chile have joined the throng (see articles here and here).

It is not surprising that all countries with frozen territorial claims in Antarctica are soliciting the UN-CLCS. The fact that there is a deadline imposed on submissions to the commission leads naturally to a concentration of submissions close to this deadline. In my previous post, I stated that this deadline was fixed at 10 years after the country concerned had signed the Convention on the Law of the Sea (Article 4 of Annexe II of the convention). The articles cited above, however, state that this deadline is in 2009. Why the discrepancy? Quite simply I got my deadlines mixed up (mea culpa!). It seems that the 10-year time-limit had raised many issues with countries unable, often for legitimate reasons, to file their submissions in time, and was therefore modified by the following decision:

The decision provides that, for a State for which the Convention entered into force before 13 May 1999, the date of commencement of the 10-year time period for making submissions to the Commission is 13 May 1999.
You can read more about the details and history of this decision on this CLCS page.

Given the 2009 deadline, both Chile and Argentina are well within their rights in submitting their own claims to the Antarctic seabed. None of these claims should actively be considered by the CLCS while the Antarctic Treaty is in force. Should the time come, any decision on the British, Chilean and Argentinian claims will most probably be dependent on resolution of their overlapping claims to the Antarctic continent itself.

Keep up to date with the latest developments at http://sismordia.blogspot.com

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Who owns Antarctica?

Update: since writing this post, Chile and Argentina have reacted to the British submission to th UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf by announcing they will file their own claims. Read all about it in this follow-up post.

Who owns Antarctica?

This question is one of many Antarctica-related questions my colleagues and I asked visitors to our International Polar Year stand at the recent Science Fair (Fete de la Science) held last weekend. It was of course a trick question, because no-one owns Antarctica. All territorial claims were frozen by the Antarctic Treaty, which guaranteed the continued use of Antarctica exclusively for peaceful ventures, and the freedom of scientific investigation and cooperation in Antarctica.

So imagine my surprise the following Wednesday, when this article from the Guardian newspaper appeared: Britain to claim more than 1m sq km of Antarctica - Move would extend UK oil, gas and mineral rights.

Here are some quotes from the article (ellipses are my own):

The United Kingdom is planning to claim sovereign rights over a vast area of the remote seabed off Antarctica [...] The submission to the United Nations covers more than 1m sq km (386,000 sq miles) of seabed, and is likely to signal a quickening of the race for territory around the south pole [...]

The claim would be in defiance of the spirit of the 1959 Antarctic treaty, to which the UK is a signatory. It specifically states that no new claims shall be asserted on the continent [...]

The Foreign Office [...] has told the Guardian that data is being gathered and processed for a submission to the UN which could extend British oil, gas and mineral exploitation rights up to 350 miles offshore into the Southern Ocean. [...]

The Antarctic submission reflects the UK's efforts to secure resources for the future as oil and natural gas reserves dwindle over the coming decades[...]

The article raised two troubling questions in my mind: how is such a claim compatible with the Antarctic Treaty System? and is the Antarctic seabed legally exploitable? Before getting onto my high horse about this claim, I needed to look more closely into the Antarctic Treaty itself. The best source of information I could find was the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, where I re-discovered most of the facts described below.

The Antarctic Treaty deals with the issue of sovereignty in Article IV, essentially maintaining the status quo of 1959 with regards to territorial claims and their recognition :
No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for assenting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim [...] shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.

Note that the Treaty does not require the countries with territorial claims made before signature of the Treaty to renounce them. The British, Australian, New-Zealand, French, Argentinian, Chilean and Norwegian claims were therefore frozen in 1959. [Note that to further complicate matters, the Argentinian and Chilean claims overlap with the British claim].

If no new territorial claims can be made or extended, what is this possible submission to the UN by the United Kingdom about? The submission would be to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). This commission judges claims on the limits of a country's continental shelf, which in turn affect the definition of its territorial waters. According to the Convention on the Law of the Sea (CLOS), claims to the CLCS should be submitted within 10 years of its entry into force for that country. As the UK signed the convention in 1997, should it wish to submit any claims, it should do so before the end of 2007. Hence the submission described by the Guardian article.

Something that was not mentioned in the Guardian article, but was brought to my attention by the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat site, was that Australia and New Zealand both submitted similar claims regarding the continental shelf adjacent to the regions of Antarctica over which they held territorial claims before 1959. The Australian claim was submitted in 2004 (Australia signed the Law of the Sea in 1994), while the New Zealand claim was submitted in 2006 (New Zealand signed the Law of the Sea in 1996).

In order to allay any concerns about the Antarctic Treaty, Australia requested that the CLCS not take any action for the time being on its Antarctic claim. The Guardian suggests the UK should make a similar request:
Ministers will have to decide under what terms the application to the UN would be made. One possibility might be for the UK government to lodge a legal claim with the UN's commission on the limits of the continental shelf and effectively park it for consideration at a future date.
As for any remaining environmental concern about future drilling off the coastal waters of Antarctica, the Protocol on Environmental Protection, an addition to the Antarctic Treaty, specifically prohibits all activities relating to the Antarctic mineral resources except for scientific research (Article 7).

What are my conclusions after all this? Firstly, that as far as I can see the UK will be doing nothing illegal or morally wrong by submitting its claim to the UN, though it will most probably have to find an agreement with Argentina and Chile given their overlapping claims to Antarctica. Secondly, and more importantly, that at some time in the future, and preferably within the next 20 years, it will be necessary for the international community to put some order into its conventions and treaties, and to decide how it intends to balance national interests with environmental issues.

Update: since writing this post, the following posts/articles have come to my attention:

Keep up to date with the latest developments at http://sismordia.blogspot.com

Friday, October 19, 2007

Japan - Pioneering Earthquake Early Warning

The Japanese Meteorological Agency has been testing an Earthquake Early Warning system for some time. Up until recently, the warnings were received only by certain agencies and infrastructures such train networks. As of October 1st, the JMA has started distributing these alerts to the public at large, via radio and TV.

The system provides estimates of the seismic intensities and expected arrival time of strongest motion. These estimations are based on fast determination of the location and magnitude of the earthquakes using data observed by seismometers near the epicenter.

Earthquake Early Warning reduces earthquake-related damage by giving time to act in preparation to the shaking, for example by slowing down trains, controlling elevators. Now that warnings are received by the public, they will enable people to protect themselves in the appropriate manner for the location they are in.

The decision to trigger an earthquake warning is taken automatically by the EEW system, based on the information it receives from the seismic stations. There is a trade-off inherent in all alert or warning procedures, between the promptness of an alert and its accuracy: simply put, it takes time to get enough information to make an informed decision, but an alert is only useful if given sufficiently in advance.

The JMA list the following inevitable limitations to the EEW system, which have to be taken into account by the users:

The window of time from the announcement of an Earthquake Early Warning until the arrival of the main tremors is very short, i.e. a matter of seconds (or between several seconds and a few tens of seconds). In areas that are close to the focus of the earthquake, the warning may not be transmitted before strong tremors hit.

False alarms
When using data from only one seismograph, false Earthquake Early Warnings may occur as a result of noise from accidents, lightning or device failure.

Magnitude estimation
There are limits to the accuracy of estimating magnitude, especially for large earthquakes. It is difficult to separate earthquakes and provide accurate warnings when multiple earthquakes occur almost simultaneously or in close proximity to each other.

Seismic intensity estimation
There are limits to the accuracy of estimating seismic intensity by statistical attenuation formula, as well as limits to the prediction of land surface amplification.
You can read more about the EEW system on the JMA webpage, where you can also find these two leaflets explaining how the system works, and how to react to a warning.

Call for comments: Are you living in Japan, or do you know people who are? Have you (or they) had to react to an Earthquake Early Warning yet? If so, please let me know how it worked, what went through your mind, what you did to prepare for the shaking, how you felt afterwards.

Keep up to date with the latest developments at http://sismordia.blogspot.com

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Expedition planning #6 - The final touches

First of all, apologies to my regular readers for dropping out on you with no warning. It has been over a month since my last post, and the time has flown.

In this time I/we have:

  • sent a malfunctioning acquisition system back to the supplier for repair, which action engendered a comedy of errors with our not-to-be named, least favorite customs broker;
  • tested all hardware being sent to Antarctica every which way possible short of destruction testing;
  • designed, written, tested, debugged, re-designed, re-tested the software which should enable us to have access to the data from our temporary field stations with some regularity;
  • traveled to Rome and back to coordinate the summer and winter campaigns with the Italian colleagues with whom we run the Concordia seismic observatory, and with those who are trying to get their own funding for an International Polar Year experiment;
  • spent an evening on the ice at the local ice-rink as part of a nation-wide IPY-themed initiative, La Nuit des Chercheurs - Researchers' Night, during which we entertained skaters with our tales of Antarctica, and counted the number of their spectacular falls by recording them on our portable seismograph;
  • spent two days teaching the 2008 Concordia station chief, Jean-Francois Vanacker, all about the observatory station there, and what he needs to do to make sure it keeps running (he's a great guy, we're confident he will do an excellent job);
  • been to see: a radiologist for a chest X-ray and lung capacity test; a cardiologist for an electrocardiogram; my dentist to have a wisdom tooth pulled; an clinical analysis center to have a full suite of blood tests; the university doctor for a general checkup; all this so we can be certified fit enough to work in Antarctica;
  • spent one half day each chatting to kids, parents, teachers, and other generally interested punters at another outreach initiative, La FĂȘte de la Science - Science Fair, which was - in a fit of originality - also geared towards the International Polar Year;
  • packed nearly all our equipment first in sealed plastic wrap (to guard against humidity followed by Antarctic temperatures, the combination of which leads to things being frozen solid), then in aluminum cases for shipping out to Hobart by air-freight (no cardboard allowed, as freight has to be sprayed before entering Australian territory)...
... and much more that has slipped my mind for the time being, or maybe for good!

I will make no promises - for what good is a promise if I am forced to break it - but I shall try to post more regularly now the most time critical expedition planning is over, and I can breathe relatively freely once more.

Keep up to date with the latest developments at http://sismordia.blogspot.com