Call it the global warming sweepstakes.
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.
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."
The upcoming dive beneath the North Pole will be far more difficult, and involve 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 (a body of scientists chosen by parties to the Law of the Sea Convention) to support Russia's claim to the territory.
The longer-term goal, says Mr. Sagelevich, 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."
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 (via 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."
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.