Geopolitics and the naming of underwater features – Science, politics and the GEBCO Sub Committee on Undersea Feature Names (SCUFN)

Supervisory Team:

  • Prof Marcus Haward
  • Assoc Prof Jeff McGee
  • Prof Mike Coffin

Brief project description:

Naming geographical features is a human social behaviour. As the global ocean and its seafloor have been the focus of increased exploration, concern had been expressed over the arbitrary nature of the naming of undersea features. In 1987 the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) “strongly encourage[d] marine scientists wishing to name significant undersea features to follow a number of guidelines rather than to name an undersea feature arbitrarily” (Bouma 1990: 119). Naming undersea features focuses on ensuring standardization and consistency in relation to their geomorphological characteristics, but also gives rise to to potential geopolitical issues in disputed areas (e.g., South China Sea) and those beyond national jurisdiction (e.g., the ‘Area’ or ‘High Seas’, where naming a feature can be a proxy for national claims and interests.

This project focuses on the roles of the IOC, IHO, and the GEBCO Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names (SCUFN) as a technical advisory body in an increasingly politicised environment. It will consider the principles, rules, norms, and processes in naming undersea features; outline and evaluate SCUFN’s operating procedures and status of decisions; and assess current mechanisms for addressing disputes over naming undersea features.

Skills students will develop during this research project:

  • Governance, Legal and policy analysis
  • Geopolitical analysis
  • Understanding of Law of the Sea

This research will contribute to understanding of a neglected and under -researched area of international oceans governance. This work will be of interest and benefit to ocean governance researchers, government officials, as well as the public with interests in, and concern over, ocean governance

Authorised by the Executive Director, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies
May 22, 2023