Continental Shelf

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Definition - What does Continental Shelf mean?

A continental shelf is the continent edge submerged in the ocean. Unlike popular belief, continental shelf doesn't end where the land meets the ocean. The water in these shelves is rarely deeper than 500 feet. According to the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea, water in continental shelves shall not exceed beyond 200 nautical miles from a nations coastline.

The average width has been calculated as 40 miles before it gives way to the deep ocean. Nations have economic sovereignty over their continental shelf.

Trenchlesspedia explains Continental Shelf

Continental shelves are like an extension of their land mass and extend to the continental slope and then the continental rise where the true ocean begins. Many of the fossil fuel reserves and oil and natural gas reserves are found beneath continental shelves and are extracted through offshore drilling.

These shelves make up less than 10 percent of the total ocean area but much of the aquatic plants, animals and microscopic life live in these shelves because of nutrient rich sediment that flow into them through river outflows, abundance of sunlight and shallow water. Studies have shown that 90 percent of the fish in the world is provided by continental shelves.

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