The U.S. just expanded its territory by one million square kilometers

The U.S. just expanded its territory by one million square kilometers

ByChrissy Sexton

Earth.com staff writer

In a historic move, the United States has officially expanded its geographical territory by one million square kilometers — an area nearly 60 percent the size of Alaska.

The catalyst for this territory expansion lies in the redefinition of the U.S. continental shelf boundaries. 

By invoking international law, the State Department has outlined new areas under the sea where the continental shelf, a seabed area surrounding large landmasses with relatively shallow waters, extends further than previously recognized. 

This monumental addition is spread across seven distinct ocean regions, with over half of the new territory located in the Arctic.

Extended Continental Shelf (ECS)

The concept of the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) is pivotal in understanding this expansion.

Under international law, coastal nations can claim these extended shelves, along with the right to manage and exploit their resources.

With this territory expansion move, the U.S. joins over 75 countries that have defined their ECS limits, which extend beyond 200 nautical miles from their coasts.

The journey to this announcement began in 2003, involving a multi-agency collaboration led by the U.S. State Department, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The mission was to gather comprehensive geological data to determine the outer limits of the U.S. continental shelf.

This extensive effort ended on December 19, 2023, with the State Department revealing the new geographic coordinates that mark the U.S. ECS.

U.S. territory expansion and marine resources 

The areas encompassed in this claim include the Arctic, the east coast Atlantic, the Bering Sea, the west coast Pacific, the Mariana Islands, and two regions in the Gulf of Mexico.

The addition of this vast territory, equivalent in size to double the state of California, significantly strengthens the nation’s control over marine resources.

“America is larger than it was yesterday,” said Mead Treadwell, a former Alaska lieutenant governor and former chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

“It’s not quite the Louisiana Purchase. It’s not quite the purchase of Alaska, but the new area of land and subsurface resources under the land controlled by the United States is two Californias larger.”

State Department project director Brian Van Pay said it took multi-agency fieldwork spanning 20 years for scientists to gather data about the shape of the seafloor and measuring sediment layers.

“Forty missions at sea, going to areas that we’ve never explored before, finding entire seamounts we didn’t even know existed,” said Van Pay.

“And, if you add up all the time that our scientists spent at sea, it’s over three years of data collection.”

Strong scientific foundation

This claim, although unratified by the U.S. Senate, adheres to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Despite the lack of formal ratification, the U.S. government proceeded to announce its continental shelf limits. 

Treadwell asserted confidence in the scientific foundation of this unilateral move.

“If somebody came back and said, ‘Your science is bad,’ I think the United States would listen. But I don’t think science is bad. I think we’ve had very good science,” said Treadwell.

The State Department’s Arctic claim notably aligns with a 1990 maritime boundary agreement with Russia, ensuring no encroachment on Russian territory. 

“None of the fixed points delineating the outer limits of the continental shelf of the United States are located west of the agreed boundary with the Russian Federation,” said the State Department.

However, potential overlap with Canada’s claims was acknowledged by Van Pay, indicating future diplomatic negotiations.

Mining and research rights of U.S. territory expansion

Crucially, this declaration does not extend U.S. jurisdiction over the water column or fishing rights beyond 200 miles off its coast.

Instead, it focuses on control over the seabed and its resources, including mining and research rights, as well as pipeline activities.

The extended continental shelf areas include portions of the Atlantic, Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mariana Islands.

The largest section lies north of Alaska, coupled with a smaller segment in the Bering Sea, collectively nearing the size of Texas.

More about Extended Continental Shelf

As discussed above, the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) refers to the seabed and subsoil that extend beyond a country’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries can assert rights to this area if they can prove that the natural prolongation of their continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ.

Using ECS for expansion of U.S. territory

This assertion is a scientific and legal process. Countries must submit detailed geological and hydrographic data to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), demonstrating the shelf’s natural extension.

This process involves advanced oceanographic surveys and rigorous scientific analysis.

The stakes are high. The ECS holds vast resources, including oil, gas, and minerals crucial for the global economy. The rights to these resources can significantly boost a nation’s economic prospects.

Additionally, the ECS has environmental significance, housing diverse ecosystems and potentially new species, making its protection a priority for sustainable development.

International cooperation required

Moreover, the ECS concept fosters international cooperation. Countries often need to collaborate in research and data collection, sharing expertise and resources.

This cooperation extends to resolving disputes over shelf boundaries, promoting peaceful negotiations over confrontations.

In summary, the Extended Continental Shelf is a frontier of immense potential, offering economic, scientific, and environmental opportunities.

As nations navigate this new terrain, responsible stewardship and international collaboration will be key to unlocking its full potential while preserving its integrity for future generations.

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