It's an achievement comparable to landing on the moon, Russian commentators insist.
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.
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.
"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.