Climate Change and Coastal Avulsion

In the past couple of weeks, a number of folks (students and colleagues) have asked about law of the sea problems raised by a permanent loss of coast line due to rising sea-levels .  What might this sort of coastal avulsion mean, for instance, to low-lying island states that are not completely submerged (a different issue).

Admittedly, I have not researched this in detail, but my starting point, unsurprisingly, has been UNCLOS and a helpful treatment by Charles Di Leva and Sachiko Morita.  UNCLOS does not provide a definitive answer, but … If you look at Arts. 7 and 76(9), the Convention hints (if not more) at permanence.

Under Art. 7, in establishing baselines in areas that are highly unstable the straight-line method is allowed and once set “shall remain effective until changed by the coastal states” “notwithstanding subsequent regression of the low water-line”.  It would seem if the coastal state does not take action, the old, underwater baseline remains effective.

In connection with the Continental Shelf, Under Art. 76(9) the coastal state deposits “charts and relevant information, including geodetic data, permanently describing the outer limits of its continental shelf”.  Again, permanence is a focus.

On the other hand, the ILC in drafting the 1958 Convention and a number of academics consider maritime zones to be less fixed and subject to movement landward and seaward with avulsion and accretion.  See e.g., David Caron, When Law Makes Climate Change Worse: Rethinking the Law of Baselines in Light of a Rising Sea Level, 17 Ecology L.Q., 621, 641 (1999); International Law Commission, 1952, Yearbook of International Law Commission 1952, vol. I (New York: United Nations), 171.

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