Several nations, including the UK, are set to expand their domains, in terms of "extended underwater territory", where claims are made under a new UN Law of the Sea Convention. The reason is of course, oil. It is thought that an area of 2.7 million square miles (about the size of Australia) is up for grabs, and includes the Arctic where Russia made a recent claim for land under the North Pole, and new islands off the coast of India which have apparently emerged from the sea. Now that is interesting. Is it due to changes in the sea-levels or to volcanism? Australia is claiming some Pacific islands too.
According to this new law, which is set to come into force within a few years, such tiny pieces of land as Ascension Island and the Falklands have become of great national interest. I recall 25 years ago, when the Falklands War kicked-off between the UK and Argentina, it was mentioned that the real reason we wanted to hold onto those islands was likely "mineral claims" on Antarctica in the future. Significantly, each piece of land carries with it a 350 mile zone in which hydrocarbons and minerals might be exploited by the owner. It is not surprising: we are approaching a period of desperation in terms of oil recovery, to be followed by gas shortages and indeed a scarcity of other minerals to fuel the electronics industry for example. If the world does contract, i.e. transform from the Global Village to a collective of localised economies, we will presumably want to hang into the internet and at least information and knowledge can thus be ferried around the world even if people no longer can be, on the currently accepted scale. Hence we will need as much germanium, gallium, indium, platinum and so on as we can get.
The matter signifies a shift in thinking. It seems odd to dig for diamonds off the South African coast, or for oil some miles off the coast of Australia, and yet, why not. Britain dug for oil off its coast under the North Sea, and indeed much of the deep-drilling technology used around the world for underwater oil exploration was developed by British/Dutch/Norwegian engineers through the North Sea bonanza which is now running dry for us. Hence we are looking pretty assiduously for any new sources of oil and gas, even of Rockall, which is the summit of an extinct volcano, but fortunately a part of British territory.
Rockall is around 25 metres wide at its base, rising to an elevation of around 22 metres at the summit: i.e. it is practically a single shaft of rock projection out of the North Atlantic ocean. Nobody lives there, apart from periwinkles and other molluscs, and it is frequently surged by storm waves. The first recorded landing on Rockall was in 1810 by an officer from the Royal navy called Basil Hall, who led a small landing party from the frigate HMS Endymion (which is also the title of a poem by John Keats).
Geologists are enthusiastic that there is a large area of seabed running from the Bay of Biscay and on past the west of Ireland into the Atlantic which might contain a massive and undiscovered oilfield. Iceland, Norway, Ireland and the UK all have claims to Rockall, which was described in 1957 as the last land-grab of the British Empire, when the Union Jack flag was raised there by British Marines. Now it is described by "greens" as the first stage of British eco-colonialism! In addition to possible oil resources, it is thought that there may be deposits of methane-hydrates which could be mined from the seabed to produced methane gas. That however is speculative. There have been large quantities of this material found at depths under the Gulf of Mexico and under the Caspian Sea. However, environmentalists are scared that digging into methane hydrates might trigger a runaway process, and add to the atmospheric burden of greenhouse gases, among which methane is a strong contender. The rapid release of methane from methane hydrate is also a hazard to undersea drilling, and is thought can trigger tsunamis too in extreme cases, as happened off the coast of Norway and which hit the UK around 8,000 years ago.
Altogether, 45 nations including South Africa, Australia, the UK, Russia, France, Brazil and Ireland are intent on expanding their territories too, in the new oil-rush that beckons.
"Scramble for the seabed: or how Rockall could be the key to a British oil bonanza", by John Vidal and Owen Bowcott, The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/sep/22/oilandpetrol/print