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Arctic's black gold mapped

Geological survey quantifies undiscovered gas and oil.

On your marks, map, drill Credit: USGS/Science

Around a third of the world's yet-to-be discovered gas resources and 13% of its undiscovered oil reserves may lie north of the Arctic Circle, a detailed geological survey has concluded.

The research, published in Science1, fills in details of preliminary mapping results announced last year by the US Geological Survey (USGS), in its Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal.

The estimates are based purely on geological data, and take no account of whether the oil and gas stores are technically recoverable or how much it would cost to exploit them. Nor do they address the environmental and cultural damage that might be inflicted by attempting to drill for oil or gas. Nonetheless, claims Donald Gautier, who led the research, "they give us insight into future petroleum resources, political relations, and places that environmental conflicts may occur".

The numbers will not surprise countries that have conducted their own surveys of the Arctic's petroleum potential. But "the study represents an excellent overall estimate of Arctic resources", says Jacob Verhoef from Natural Resources Canada.


Click for a larger version of this image Credit: USGS/Science

In total, the USGS estimates that the Arctic's undiscovered gas reserves range between 770 trillion and 2,990 trillion cubic feet (22 trillion-86 trillion cubic metres) - the mean value amounting to 30% of global undiscovered natural gas. Much of it is concentrated in Russian territory. "The South Kara Sea, Russia, is probably the richest basin in the Arctic, in terms of undiscovered resources," says Gautier.

Alaska holds the biggest concentration of undiscovered oil, which in total may range from 22 to around 256 billion barrels, with a mean of 90 billion. Global demand for oil is about 30 billion barrels a year. Although of great commercial value, the Arctic's extra contribution is unlikely to shift the Middle East's control of global oil supplies, Gautier adds. "The world's future energy supply will not be determined by Arctic oil," he says. "But the future economic prosperity of the Arctic nations will be greatly affected by oil resources."


Click for a larger version of this image Credit: USGS/Science

Deep-water scrum

The bulk of the USGS-estimated resources are located offshore on continental shelves, and their national ownership is not in question. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) permits states an economic zone out to 200 nautical miles from their coastline.

But a few of the surveyed areas lie in contested waters. As polar ice retreats, making the Arctic more accessible for resource exploration, several countries have submitted claims to UNCLOS for extraction rights in uncharted Arctic sea beds beyond state economic zones (see Nature 451 , 12-15; 2008).

One of the gas hotspots is the Barents Sea Plateau, which both Norway and Russia have claimed under UNCLOS. The two states have agreed not to extract in the area. "There is a moratorium on extraction [in the Barents Sea Plateau]," says Harald Brekke, a senior geologist at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate. "We don't do any active research there."

There are also about 6.4 billion barrels of oil in a part of the Mackenzie basin, says Gautier, an area that has overlapping claims from the United States and Canada.

Missing parts

Verhoef points out that the USGS estimates don't include new data mapped from offshore Arctic regions.

And Brekke adds that, although he cannot make comments on the accuracy of the Arctic estimates as a whole, the figures for resources in Norway differ from his country's own estimates. "We have detailed knowledge of just two of the areas in their study. Their estimates are higher than our own for those areas by a factor of two," he says.

"Conventional oil and gas are just a small part of the Arctic's vast energy resources," adds Mead Treadwell, chairman of the US Arctic Research Commission. He points to gas hydrates, oil shales, heavy oil and tar sands, and methane. "These sources were not part of the scope of the study, nor were the Arctic's giant wind, wave, geothermal, hydro-electric and tidal energy potential."


  1. Gautier, D. L. et al. Science 324,1175–1179 (2009).

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Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal

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Nayar, A. Arctic's black gold mapped. Nature (2009).

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