Continental Shelf – What it is, concept and characteristics

We explain what a continental shelf is, its biological and geographical characteristics. In addition, its legal and economic importance.

Continental platform
The continental shelf is the underwater continuation of the continent.

What is the continental shelf?

In geology and oceanography, it is known as the continental shelf or continental plate to the region of the seabed that is very close to the coast and that has depths of less than 200 meters, although its amplitude can range from a few meters to tens of kilometers. In other words, it is the submarine continuation of the continent.

The continental shelves are made up of continental crust, but they usually host a significant layer of sediment. Because feature abundant plant and animal life, and in them are usually found most of the submarine deposits of oil and natural gas, in the rocky bed below these platforms. This, together with coastal recreational activities, make them areas of great economic importance.

From an international legal point of view, the continental shelves constitute part of the sovereign territory of each coastal country, over which it exercises exclusive rights of economic exploitation and civil and military transport. These limits are determined based on continental morphology and are usually the subject of disputes between countries, since outside them there are so-called “international waters” that do not belong to anyone in particular.

The proportions of continental shelves can vary enormously: some geographic regions have little or no continental shelf, while others have long stretches of it. But its depth, as we said before, never exceeds 200 meters deep. To cite one example, the Siberian shelf in northern Russia stretches 1,500 km across the Arctic Ocean.

In any case, the continental shelves normally culminate in continental slopes, which are more or less pronounced and long descents towards the depths of the sea, at the end of which there are usually abyssal plains, oceanic depressions or even some elevations such as oceanic ridges, depending of the underwater geology of the region.