An Arctic Revelation
September 19, 2008
A Trip to the Frozen North Lends Color to One Lawyer’s Thinking
Professor Betsy Baker flips through the multitude of images on her laptop, excitedly pointing out the tracking patterns of the U.S. Coast Guard Healy as it forged its way through the Arctic Ocean.
She recently returned to VLS following a three-week trip aboard the massive icebreaker, the only lawyer among 38 scientists who set out from Barrow, Alaska on August 14 to map the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf in the Arctic. The researchers gathered data the U.S. will use to support international recognition of its rights over portions of this region, which provokes intense international interest due in large part to the wealth of oil reserves below. Baker emphasized that, contrary to media spin, the U.S., Russia, Canada and all of the Arctic states are mapping their respective areas as part of a lawful, regulated process designed to avoid conflict and provide clarity and peaceful resolution of boundary issues for all states involved.
“I’ve been transformed by this trip—in the way I think, in the way I teach, in the way I see,” said Baker, who is teaching a course this semester that examines the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and its relationship to the Arctic and its environment.
Moving at five miles an hour across a massive sea of ice on a ship the length of a football field, Baker was assigned to midnight watch duties. She sat side-by-side with scientists while monitoring screens that tracked thousands of sonar beams as they shot back images of the ocean floor and mapped the contours of its depths.
Before she set out, Baker predicted that she would return with “a better understanding” of the Arctic region that would translate to a better education for her students. In hindsight, that may have been an understatement.
In three weeks time, Baker developed a much deeper appreciation for the role of science as she learned more about geology and marine research. She learned how to deploy and retrieve research buoys and saw how dredging and mapping operations relate to oil exploration. Her vocabulary resembles something of a jumbled alphabet, deploying terms such as CCOM, MSR, XBT, and CLCS in describing her work aboard the Healy.
As a lawyer, Baker says she has traditionally viewed international treaties through the narrow lens of legal doctrine, “black and white words on a page.” After three weeks of working with scientists, that view has changed.
“Now I take more of the scientists’ approach,” she said. “Lawyers see things linearly. Scientists see more three-dimensionally—in Technicolor.”
She also expects that her work on board the Healy will offer a better understanding of the relationships between the many international groups working in the Arctic, groups with acronyms such as IMO, IHO, IOC, WMO, and UNEP.
But for now, she is savoring the images from the Healy and hoping for another trip to the Arctic in her future.
“I was in a constant state of awe, exposed to a totally new landscape—or icescape—the beauty of which is indescribable,” she said of the icebreaker experience. “You are so intensely focused on the work at hand, 24 hours a day.”
And, she added, “Scientists are just really fun people to spend time with.”