As ice caps melt, Russia stakes its claim to oil-rich Arctic
Thursday Russians planted a titanium flag in the seabed of 'yellow muck' nearly three miles beneath the surface.
It's an achievement comparable to landing on the moon, Russian commentators insist.Skip to next paragraph
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Four Russian and two foreign explorers aboard a pair of deep-sea submersibles made an unprecedented journey Thursday to probe the remote seabed beneath the North Pole.
To symbolize Moscow's claim to the polar territory and all its resources, they planted a tricolor Russian flag made of titanium in the "yellow muck" nearly three miles down, before returning safely to the small fleet of research ships on the icebound surface.
"The landing was smooth, the yellowish mud is around us, no sea creatures are visible," expedition leader Artur Chilingarov signaled from one of the Mir minisubs, according to the official ITAR-Tass agency.
Before making the dive, Mr. Chilingarov, Russia's most famous Arctic explorer and a deputy speaker of parliament, made clear that the effort is not just about expanding the horizons of science. "We are here to define the outer limit of Russia's territory," he said.
Also along for the ride were Australian Michael McDowell, described by Russian media as a researcher, and Swedish pharmaceutical tycoon Frederik Paulsen, who reportedly helped to finance the Russian expedition.
"This is a serious and risky operation," Sergei Balyasnikov, press spokesman for the St. Petersburg-based Arctic Research Institute, told the official RIA-Novosti agency. "It is an extremely important act for Russia ... like raising a flag on the Moon."
As milder temperatures make exploration of the Arctic seafloor possible for the first time, Russia's biggest-ever polar mission appears to have beaten all potential rivals in the race to stake out a claim at the Earth's cap. The rock samples and other data gathered by the subs will be used to support Russia's claim to own 460,000 square miles of hitherto international territory – an area larger than France and Germany combined in a region estimated to contain 25 percent 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 one-quarter 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.