International Water Boundaries - Iraq and Iran
Thinking some more about the international water boundaries - it may seem really strange, but water boundaries are a completely different beast than land boundaries for a lot of different reasons, and some of these can easily explain how British navy troops were 'found' in 'Iranian waters' when they were 'supposed' to be in 'Iraqi waters'. Water boundaries, specifically international ones, have some strange characteristics:
- how a water boundary is defined: for example with a line perpendicular to the shore.....but what defines where the shore is?? Storms and seasons affect the definition of shorelines all over the world, which immediately affects any line perpendicular to that shoreline. And a small (1 arc-second) change in a shoreline doesn't mean much on land, but when you follow the 'new' perpendicular line out into the ocean 10 or 20 or 30 km's then you can easily be several hundred meters to either side of the original line.
- how a water boundary actually comes into being: usually international treaty, but even that is a bit sketchy as the oceans are still claimed by countries from all over with many many many disputes still unresolved (the number of international water boundaries in dispute is several times more than the number that are actually defined and agreed upon by treaty). And as shown by Saddam in the '80's when he ripped up the treaty that defined the water boundary between Iraq and Iran, it's just a piece of paper - it's not as easy to defend or hold up as a land boundary.
- how water boundaries are measured: they didn't get into this in the article I read (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6496559.stm), but how you define the "equipotential surface" (this is a mathematical model that defines the surface of the earth - there are so many variations in ways to define the surface of the earth and their accuracies and possible uses that it's mind-boggling!!!) greatly affects your position on the globe. It's very similar to the example mentioned about changing a shoreline by 1 arc second, except this is on a much bigger scale. GPS uses one surface that 'fits' or 'models' the world best, but that doesn't mean it accurately or best defines the surface of the water in this corner of the earth the best - this model just statistically fits better than any other for the world as a whole. The Iranian and Iraqi charts where the positions were plotted could actually have been generated using different surfaces that may have modeled their respective countries better. For example, for defining property boundaries in Canada the government has defined a projection as best fitting Canada in general. This projection is based on a math model of sine’s and cosines etcetera. This model likely best fits Canada in the central region (Ontario probably), however as you get farther and farther east, west, and north the accuracy of the projection declines, and once you leave Canada altogether and go to Mexico the model is likely WAY off. Another way is to picture an orange peel - it shapes around the orange great, but when you lay it down flat it gets all bent out of shape and splits and looks ugly - more and more ugly as you get further from the center of the orange peel. You can't have that on a map or chart, so that's when you use a math model to represent the distortions caused when the orange peel is flattened. It's actually not that hard then the orange peel is perfectly round and has no variations.....but the surface of the earth is imbued with variations, so the math model gets very complicated; so complicated that often countries keep things a bit simpler by using a model that fits their country best.
- how the boundary is demarcated: as mentioned in the article the boundary was defined by marker buoys, however I'm sure the maintenance and upkeep of the marker buoys was NOT on the top of Saddam's list of things to do for the past 10 years. So many things could have happened to the markers: storms moved them; vandals changed them; tidal variations change their surface positions - the list is huge. Even rising global sea levels would change the position of the markers on the surface of the water - the markers are anchored on the ocean floor with a fixed chain to the buoy on the surface. When the buoy is right above the anchor the chain must be straight - this could happen at high tide for example, when there is a big volume of water between the anchor and the buoy. But at low tide the anchor is still in the same place but now there is slack on the chain so the buoy moves around with the current, thus 'position of the border'. And if the water level were extremely high the buoy could possibly start to lift the anchor off the ocean floor and move it with the tides.
- how far out do the boundaries stretch: this is really not well defined by international law. Typically there is about a '3 mile limit' (this was typically how far a cannonball could be fired from land - pretty archaic way of defining it, non?) that countries can claim sovereignty over. After that 3 mile limit the boundaries get fuzzier up to 12 miles, and more than 12 miles it's very fuzzy. The problem also arises when the 3 mile limit actually extends onto another countries land.....so where is the boundary drawn in this case???
All of these problems aren't something that's limited to 'foreign' countries that don't have 'our standard' of civilization (tongue in cheek) - these problems of defining a water boundary are totally alive and causing problems between Canada and the US today - however because of our friendly relationship these problems typically don't come out in the news. But when you get into a hot-spot such as the water between Iraq and Iran the potential for misunderstandings is enormous. As the article mentions - neither side is right in this situation. I think it's all a lot of political posturing.