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LONDON (Reuters) - British researchers on Wednesday unveiled what they billed as the first authoritative map to highlight disputed territories in the resource-rich Arctic.
The map, which shows areas where boundaries are already agreed as well as areas where claims have been made or disputes could break out, is designed to help world powers as they battle over rights to the remote but potentially lucrative area.
"The map is the most precise depiction yet of the limits and the future dividing lines that could be drawn across the Arctic region," said Martin Pratt, director of research at Durham University's International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU).
"The results have huge implications for policy-making as the rush to carve up the polar region continues," he said.
Nations around the Arctic Ocean -- Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Denmark and Iceland -- are rushing to stake preliminary claims with the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf before a May 2009 deadline.
Scientists say global warming is more extreme in the Arctic than elsewhere, and the ice sheet is retreating -- it has shrunk by more than a quarter in the past 30 years. Previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves could be within reach in decades.
Russia sparked international outrage last year when it planted a flag on the seabed underneath the North Pole in an effort to stake its claim to a large chunk of the Arctic.
The U.S. Geological Survey said last month the Arctic Circle could hold an estimated 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil, enough supply to meet world demand for almost three years.
It also said the Arctic holds around 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 20 percent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids.
Claims on the Arctic relate to a complex area of law covered by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which any state can claim territory up to 200 nautical miles from its shoreline and exploit the natural resources within that zone.
Some states such as Russia say their rights should extend much further because their continental shelves -- the shallow landmasses off their shores -- should count as shorelines.
Pratt said he hoped the new map would help politicians and policy makers to understand areas of jurisdiction as they engage in maritime territorial disputes.
"There has been a lot written about this coming conflict, but it is largely based on rather poor geographic information," he told Reuters. "We wanted to give a clear visual guide to what the situation really is."
The map is available for download from the IBRU website: here
Editing by Robert Hart