LONDON (Reuters) - British researchers unveiled on Wednesday what they billed as the "first ever" Arctic map to show key disputed territories in the resource-rich region.
The map -- which highlights Arctic areas where boundaries are already agreed, as well as areas where claims have been made and where 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 the 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."
Nations around the Arctic Ocean -- Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Denmark and Iceland -- are rushing to stake preliminary claims to the region with the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf before a May 2009 deadline.
Scientists say that due to global warming, temperatures are rising faster in the Arctic than elsewhere and the ice sheet is retreating -- it has shrunk by more than a quarter in the past 30 years. This could mean that 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 current 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.
The claims on the Arctic relate to a complex area of law covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which any state can claim territory up to 200 nautical miles from their shoreline and exploit the natural resources within that zone.
Some states -- such as Russia -- claim their rights should extend much further because their continental shelves -- landmasses that continue into shallow coastal waters before dropping into the deep ocean -- should count as shorelines.
Pratt said he hoped the new map would help politicians and policy makers to understand areas of maritime jurisdiction as they engage in and try to settle sea 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 )