The UK has formally laid claim to 200,000 sq km of the Atlantic seabed surrounding Ascension Island as the international race to establish sovereignty over underwater territories gains momentum.
In a submission lodged with the UN this month Britain has demarcated its bid to gain control of the area - almost equivalent to the UK's entire land surface.
The mountainous ocean floor up to 350 miles from the isolated island in the South Atlantic is believed to contain extensive mineral deposits. With no near neighbours, other states are unlikely to challenge the claim.
The deadline of May 2009 for countries to submit maps of their underwater stakes is approaching, intensifying diplomatic rivalries in contested parts of the globe, such as the Arctic and Antarctica.
Claims are being processed by the New York-based UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. States may extend their territorial rights over the seabed beyond the 200-mile limit and up to 350 miles from an adjacent coastline.
They have to prove that the seabed is part of a continuous continental shelf adjoining their coastline.
Barbados this month submitted a claim to a wide swath of underwater territory on the outer rim of the Caribbean. Its documentation was assembled with the help of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, one of the units that helped the UK to plot its territorial claim.
"Ascension Island [is] the peak of a 4,000-metre mountain just to the west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge," said Martin Pratt, director of Durham University's International Boundaries Research Unit, who has been monitoring the scramble for submarine claims.
"The island has a land area of around 100 sq km but, due to its isolated location, it generates an [exclusive economic zone] with an area of more than 440,000 sq km. If the submission is approved by the commission, the UK will gain nearly 200,000 sq km of additional seabed in which it will have sovereign rights to exploit living and non-living resources."
As mineral and energy prices soar, there is growing international interest in exploring the seabed for increasingly scarce reserves. The first deep-sea mining project - operating at depths of over a mile and aiming to extract gold, silver, copper and zinc from extinct volcanic vents - is due to start operating in the waters off Papua New Guinea next year. The pioneering equipment is being built by a Newcastle upon Tyne firm, Soil Machine Dynamics.
The waters around Ascension Island are generally deeper than the Pacific and probably beyond current technological limits for extraction. The mid-Atlantic ridge does contain, however, similar volcanic black smoker vents that help concentrate valuable minerals.
Last year the Guardian revealed that Britain has lodged, or is preparing, claims to underwater territories around Antarctica, the Falklands, Rockall in the north Atlantic, in the Bay of Biscay, and off the mid-Atlantic island of Ascension.
In its formal submission to the UN, the UK attempts to reassure the international community that its claim on the continental shelf offshore of the British Antarctic Territory will not destabilise the Antarctic Treaty, which was designed to freeze the colonial race for land at the South Pole.
But the letter notes: "There exist areas of continental shelf the extent of which has yet to be defined. It is open to the states concerned to submit information to the commission which would not be examined by it for the time being."
Both Argentina and Chile have announced that they plan to make rival submissions for the seabed off the icy southern continent
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