I’ve sometimes heard people try to argue that Australia is not a continent. They usually say this after looking at a Mercator projection map and remarking that it’s hardly bigger than Greenland, so why should it be a continent? It may come as a surprise to these people that not only is Australia a continent, but the United Nations just officially made it bigger. Much bigger.
With certain exceptions, continents are generally defined as the limits of a very large landmass and its associated underwater continental shelf. As such, it’s usually the limit of this continental shelf that determines where a continent ends and the deep sea begins. Since continental shelves can hold huge quantities of oil, natural gas, and other resources, delineating their borders can be an important and politically charged subject.
The Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, which came into effect in 1994, established rules for how countries could claim underwater continental shelves as part of their territory. Based on these rules, Australia laid claim to 2.8 million square kilometers of new underwater territory, and submitted its claim to the United Nations for ratification. On April 21, 2008, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, made up of “experts in the field of geology, geophysics or hydrology,” declared for Australia.
Australia’s new territory is anything but insubstantial. The 2.5 million square kilometers of continental shelf the UN awarded equal nearly one third of the country’s land area. The area includes territory south of Tasmania, toward New Zealand, and out into the Indian Ocean. It also includes territory that adjoins Australia’s claims in Antarctica. According to Australia’s Minister for Resources and Energy, the new area is “five times the size of France, seven times the size of Germany and almost 10 times the size of New Zealand.” Click on the header picture above for a full map of the new territory.
The UN decision gives the Australian government the right to drill for oil and natural gas in its new territories. Perhaps more importantly, it gives them the authority the deny the right to drill to others. This decision could prove to have long-lasting economic repercussions in Australia’s energy sector. According to one official, “a larger continental shelf means a larger canvas upon which we can paint our resource and energy future … We really know very little about the perceptivity of these areas, however, and increasing that knowledge will … encourage explorers into these areas.”