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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.

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The dive beneath the North Pole involved collecting evidence about the age, sediment thickness, and types of rock, as well as other data – all of which will be presented to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The commission is a body of scientists chosen by parties to the Law of the Sea Convention to support Russia's claim to the territory.

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"The goal of the expedition is not to reserve Russia's rights but to prove that our shelf reaches the North Pole," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Thursday.

The longer-term purpose, says Anatoly Sagelevich, one of the Mir pilots, is to get used to permanently working in that environment.

"The Arctic region is rich in natural resources, but we must find a reliable method of their development," he says. "This expedition is very important for the solution of this complicated task. No one has ever tried to dive and work under the Arctic ice."

Canada and others also eye region

Other northern countries are getting into the race. Canada, which has the second-longest Arctic coastline, is currently conducting a $70 million project to map the seabed on its side of the Lomonosov Ridge, in what experts suggest is a prelude to making its own submission to the UN. Earlier this month Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to build eight new ice-capable patrol ships and a deep water Arctic port to defend Canada's stake.

"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic: We either use it or lose it," Mr. Harper said. "And make no mistake, this government intends to use it."

Norway and Denmark (because of Denmark's claim over Greenland) are also possible entrants. The US could claim Arctic territory adjacent to Alaska, but is hampered by Congress's failure so far to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention.

Three years ago, US lawmakers were already warning of the detrimental impact of failing to ratify the Convention. In a May 2004 speech advocating ratification, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana – then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – told his audience at Washington's Brookings Institute that the UN "will soon begin making decisions on claims to continental shelf areas that could impact the United States' own claims to the area and resources of our broad continental margin."

He specifically mentioned Russia's ambitions, as well.

"Russia is already making excessive claims in the Arctic," said Senator Lugar. "Unless we are party to the Convention, we will not be able to protect our national interest in these discussions."

The Associated Press reports that Congress is considering an $8.7 billion budget reauthorization bill for the Coast Guard that includes $100 million to operate and maintain the nation's three existing polar icebreakers. The bill also authorizes the Coast Guard to construct two new vessels. According to a report from Russian press agency Novosti, a senior US official said Tuesday that Congress would ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in order to join a commission to examine Russian and other nations' claims to Arctic territory.

The US Coast Guard says that an icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, will leave Seattle for the Chukchi Cap above the Artic Circle, for research purposes, on Aug. 6.

Possible disputes in future

Some experts are concerned about the potential for future conflict over Arctic territory and resources, and the Russian media highlighted reports of a "US spy plane" that allegedly shadowed the North Pole expedition this week. But others say that existing international law is adequate to enable boundaries of influence to be negotiated between the key players as global warming unlocks the north's treasures.

"I don't see why this issue should worsen relations between Russia and other countries," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "We can solve our differences on the basis of information. And [after this expedition], Russia will be able to say that we've been there and conducted the research" to bolster Russia's territorial claims in the region.