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America Just Got Bigger by 386,000 Square Miles Overnight: US Expands Its Borders Under the Sea

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The United States recently staked its claim to more than 386,000 additional square miles of territory – all of it underwater. This expansion of America’s extended continental shelf has major implications for resources, habitats, and Arctic strategy.

What is the Extended Continental Shelf?

The extended continental shelf (ECS) refers to offshore ocean areas that extend far beyond a country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Although covered by relatively shallow waters typically less than 500 meters deep, the ECS is considered a natural prolongation of a nation’s continental land mass as it slopes gradually into the deeper ocean abyss.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The United States has rights under international law, as granted by the Law of the Sea Convention, to conserve and manage natural resources on and under its extended continental shelf out to 350 nautical miles from shore.

Vast Addition to US Territory

On December 19th, 2023, the US Department of State announced that the country was expanding its extended continental shelf by over 386,000 square miles – well over twice the size of California. This addition spans seven regions – the largest being in the resource-rich and geopolitically strategic Arctic, where the shelf extends up to 680 nautical miles offshore at its furthest northwest reach.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Other substantial expansions are off the Atlantic coast (350 nautical miles offshore) and Pacific coast, with smaller portions newly claimed in the Gulf of Mexico and near Pacific islands like the Mariana Islands. The total area is equal to about 15% of all US terrestrial territory, constituting a maritime area nearly the size of Alaska and Texas combined.

Why This Matters Geopolitically

Experts say the Arctic addition has important implications for US interests in the region. It helps further secure American territorial rights and reflects the US commitment to engage on Arctic policy issues via frameworks like the Law of the Sea Convention.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The extended continental shelf even overlaps with Russian territorial waters at certain points far to the north, but no negotiation between the countries over boundaries is needed due to existing treaties like the 1990 Maritime Boundary Agreement already establishing coordinates between the superpowers.

Extensive Data Collection Required

Determining the exact outer limits of the extended continental shelf took many years of comprehensive mapping of not just water depth, but also the shape and geophysical characteristics of the continental margins sloping down to the deep seabed.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Starting in 2003, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) conducted the largest US offshore mapping effort ever undertaken up to that point. The accumulated data provides insights into geomorphology, sediment thickness, and crustal structure – all key to geographically defining the country’s expansive maritime territorial rights.

Vital Undersea Resources Secured

A key reason for any coastal nation to claim expanded ocean rights is to better manage natural resources and habitats for sustainable use. The continental shelves hold commercially valuable fisheries, oil and gas deposits, metallic mineral deposits, and vital breeding habitats for diverse marine organisms.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now the United States has sovereign rights to enact conservation measures to preserve sensitive habitats and manage extractive activities in these additional areas totaling over 680 nautical miles from the coast – rights that previously defaulted to international waters.

Interagency Effort Spans 14 Agencies

The Department of State led the extended continental shelf project through the US Extended Continental Shelf Task Force. This interagency body is composed of 14 different federal entities spanning capabilities from geospatial analysis to hydrographic surveying to international maritime law.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cooperating across departments and specialties enabled the necessary data analysis, international boundary coordination with neighboring countries, and regulatory submissions to culminate in expanding the country’s resource rights over extensive new maritime territory for generations to come.

Eastern Seaboard Also Expanded

While the Arctic addition has gotten much attention, the extended continental shelf off the Atlantic coast was also newly increased by over 100,000 square miles – extending some 350 nautical miles from the coastline at its furthest northeast point off New England.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This Atlantic region likely holds valuable offshore energy sources in the form of oil and gas deposits, as well as vital habitats for commercially important fisheries and endangered species. It constitutes a strategically important addition on the populated east coast with major port infrastructure already in place.

Pacific Coast Claims Sovereignty Too

In addition to the eastern continental shelf extension, areas of Washington, Oregon, and California were federally designated as sovereign US territories. Through detailed analysis, experts proved parts of the shelf break stretch more than 200 nautical miles from the Pacific shoreline at their widest points, meeting geographic criteria for United States jurisdiction.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rights to fisheries management and potential seabed mineral extraction are economically important reasons for the Pacific coastal expansion, as is the conservation of kelp forests and harbor seals. This brackets the continental United States with new oceanic territory on the Pacific side to match the Atlantic.

Smaller Gulf and Island Additions

While tiny in sheer area in comparison to Arctic and coastal enrichments, even the continental shelf extensions around offshore US territories like the Mariana Islands and certain zones in the eastern Gulf of Mexico met the geographic criteria for inclusion in the extended continental shelf.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Every bit of extended sovereign rights matters, no matter how small. Even these minor portions may contain undiscovered oil reserves or fragile coral ecosystems worth preserving before encountering threats from climate change or human activity.

America’s Interests Advanced

The Department of State’s announcement may have flown under the mainstream media radar, but it has monumental implications for US strategy as well as access to resources. Extending jurisdiction over these maritime areas helps sustain fisheries, tap potential offshore energy, and better conserve embattled biodiversity – all advancing national interests.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Reinforcing sovereign rights through meticulous data analysis and international law reflects an enduring US commitment to engage on the world stage while expanding its territories to secure vital economic, environmental, and security interests well into the 21st century.

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Matty Jacobson

Written by Matty Jacobson

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