Volcanic Eruptions and International Law - Lessons from Iceland

Volcanic Eruptions and International Law - Lessons from Iceland

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Volcanic eruptions can have various consequences, including in the field of international law. In the seminar, two eruptions will be addressed that have impacted the baselines for measuring the breadth of the territorial sea and other maritime zones of Iceland: Mount Katla in 1918 and the sudden appearance of the volcanic island Surtsey in 1963 (the most southern point of Iceland). The main focus of the seminar will be on the 1918 eruption. In 1922, the Icelandic Supreme Court had the opportunity, in a case concerning illegal fisheries of a foreign vessel, to address the impact of accretion on the seaward extension of maritime zones following the volcanic eruption of 1918.

In its decision, which the Supreme Court confirmed, the Reykjavik Police Court noted that the territorial sea line was not a fixed or determined line on the sea but changed with avulsions and accretions. This is one of the few judgements that exist that address this issue. The topic is important for the current dialogue concerning the impact sea-level rise may have on territorial sea baselines. It is a clear example of the view that the normal baseline is ambulatory as it correlates to the low-water line, meaning that it extends seaward with land accretion and retracts with coastal erosion and submergence of coastal features. This view is opposed by some States, mainly in the Pacific. Presumably, if the judgment had been written in a more commonly spoken language, it would be well known.


Professor Bjarni Már Magnússon recently joined the department of law at Bifröst University after ten years at Reykjavik University. His teaching and research focus has mainly been on international law, especially the law of the sea. He is the author of the monograph The Continental Shelf beyond 200 Nautical Miles: Delineation, Delimitation and Dispute Settlement (Brill, 2015). Magnússon worked for Bangladesh in the dispute concerning delimitation of the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, the first maritime boundary case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. He is a member of the working group of the Icelandic government on the preparation of submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and frequently advises various entities on law of the sea questions. Professor Magnússon holds a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh (2013). He is a Chevening and Fulbright alumni.

Professor Bjarni Már Magnússon
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