Russia aims to claim Arctic seabed
Minisubmarines to explore depths
MOSCOW -- Russian scientists hope to plunge to the seabed beneath the North Pole in the next few days in a miniature submarine and plant a titanium capsule containing the Russian flag, symbolically claiming much of the Arctic Ocean floor for Moscow.
Thick sea ice threatens to thwart the expedition, an engineer with Russia's premier polar research institute said last week. But if the effort succeeds, it could mark the official start of a cold diplomatic war for the Arctic, one of the Earth's last energy frontiers.
A convoy consisting of a research vessel and an icebreaker, and led by Russia's most famous polar explorer, set sail Tuesday from Murmansk toward the North Pole -- shadowed, according to Russian TV reports, by at least one Norwegian military aircraft.
Yesterday, Russian researchers were performing test dives to depths of more than a mile in two miniature submarines near Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.
The expedition, supported by the Kremlin, was dispatched to buttress Russia's claims to more than 460,000 square miles of the Arctic shelf, an area that by some estimates contains 10 billion tons of oil and gas deposits. Analysts say the effort is part of Russia's long-range efforts to expand its energy empire.
About 100 scientists on the research vessel Akademik Fyodorov are looking for evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge -- a 1,240-mile underwater mountain ridge that crosses the polar region and connects Russia and Greenland -- is a geologic extension of Russia.
If it is part of the mainland, the ridge can be claimed by Russia under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Arkady Soshnikov, chief engineer of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Scientific Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said this year's unusually thick sea ice could hamper the expedition.
While the nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya is capable of pushing through most pack ice, Soshnikov said, the Akademik Fyodorov may have trouble following. Still, the plan calls for the minisubmarines to descend to the seabed under the North Pole tomorrow or Tuesday, he said.
Despite this summer's conditions near the pole, the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice has been shrinking since the early 20th century and the change has accelerated in the last decade, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some scientists blame the shrinkage on the effects of human-driven climate change.
As the Arctic's ice recedes, its waters are becoming more navigable -- and its riches more accessible to a resource-hungry world.
The largely unexplored Arctic seabed could contain vast oil and gas deposits; the recoverable petroleum reserves of several countries that claim the shores of the northern polar ocean -- including the United States, Russia, and Norway -- are rapidly being exhausted.
President Vladimir Putin considers the expedition "very important," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "Being a unique scientific expedition, it is of course supported by the president."
The Kremlin, he added, is well aware of the territorial implications of the research. "Besides being of scientific importance, of course we will wait and see the results of that expedition, whether they determine that the bottom is a continuation" of the Lomonosov Ridge, he said.
Moscow has claimed the polar region since at least the days of the Bolsheviks, and argued that the geological data backed up this claim in 2002 in an application to the UN committee that administers the Law of the Sea. The UN rejected Moscow's application, citing a lack of evidence.
Russia is expected to go back to the UN in 2009 with data from its recent expeditions.
Emboldened by surging oil revenues, the Kremlin has in recent years revived the Soviet-era practice of direct economic, scientific, and geopolitical competition with the West. In the case of the Arctic seabed, at least, some nations seem ready to respond in kind.
Denmark's scientists hope to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Danish territory of Greenland, not Russia.
Thorkild Meedom of Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation said Canadian and Danish scientists on two icebreakers are conducting mapping studies of the north polar sea.
"We're going step by step and mapping as conditions permit," Meedom said.