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As icecaps melt, Russia races for Arctic's resources

This week, it stakes territory in an internationally administered area said to contain vast oil and gas reserves.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2007


Call it the global warming sweepstakes.

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As milder temperatures make exploration of the Arctic sea floor possible for the first time, Russia's biggest-ever research expedition to the region is steaming toward the immense scientific prestige of being the first to explore the seabed of the world's crown.

In the next few days, two manned minisubs will be launched through a hole blasted in the polar ice to scour the ocean floor nearly three miles below. They will gather rock samples and plant a titanium Russian flag to symbolize Moscow's claim over 460,000 square miles of hitherto international territory – an area bigger than France and Germany combined in a region estimated to contain a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves.

The issue of who owns the North Pole, now administered by the International Seabed Authority, has long been regarded as academic since the entire region is locked in year-round impenetrable ice. But with global warming thinning the icecaps, the question has vaulted to the front burner.

"The No. 1 reason for the urgency about this is global warming, which makes it likely that a very large part of the Arctic will become open to economic exploitation in coming decades," says Alexei Maleshenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The race for the North Pole is becoming very exciting." The US Geological Survey estimates that 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie beneath the Arctic Ocean. Experts at the Russian Institute of Oceanology calculate that the saddle-shaped territory that Russia is planning to claim may contain up to 10 billion tons of petroleum, plus other mineral resources and vast, untapped fishing stocks.

Russia stakes its claim

The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention establishes a 12-mile offshore territorial limit for each country, plus a 200-mile "economic zone" in which it has exclusive rights.

But the law leaves open the possibility that the economic zone can be extended if it can be proved that the seafloor is actually an extension of a country's geological territory.

In 2001, Russia submitted documents to the United Nations (UN) claiming that the Lomonosov Ridge, which underlies the Arctic Ocean, is actually an extension of the Siberian continental shelf and should therefore be treated as Russian territory. The case was rejected.

But a group of Russian scientists returned from a six-week Arctic mission in June insisting that they had uncovered solid evidence to support the Russian claim. That paved the way for the current expedition, which includes the giant nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya, the huge research ship Akademik Fyodorov, two Mir deep-sea submersibles – previously used to explore the wreck of the Titanic – and about 130 scientists.

The subs were tested Sunday, near Franz-Joseph Land in the frozen Barents Sea, and found to be working well.

"It was the first-ever dive of manned vehicles under the Arctic ice," Anatoly Sagelevich, one of the pilots, told the official ITAR-Tass agency. "We now know that we can perform this task."