Russia presses claim on Arctic
Area may hold gas, oil deposits
MOSCOW -- A Russian expedition aiming to claim vast swaths of the Arctic Ocean seabed reached the North Pole yesterday, and scientists immediately began preparing to send two mini-submarines under the ice to mark the sea floor with a Russian flag.
"For the first time in history, people will go down to the sea bed under the North Pole," Sergei Balyasnikov, a spokesman for the Arctic and Antarctic research institute that prepared the expedition, said. "It's like putting a flag on the moon."
The voyage, led by polar explorer and Russian legislator Artur Chilingarov, has some scientific goals, including the study of Arctic plants and animals. But its chief goal appears to be advancing Russia's political and economic influence by strengthening its legal claims to the huge gas and oil deposits thought to lie beneath the Arctic sea floor.
Russian scientists hope to dive in submarines to a depth of more than 13,200 feet, and drop a metal capsule carrying the Russian flag onto the sea bed. Balyasnikov said the dive was to start this morning.
The symbolic gesture, along with geologic data being gathered by expedition scientists, is intended to prop up Moscow's claims to more than 460,000 square miles of the Arctic shelf -- which, by some estimates, may contain 10 billion tons of oil and gas deposits.
About 100 scientists aboard the Akademik Fedorov research ship are specifically looking for evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge -- a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region -- is a geologic extension of Russia, and therefore can be claimed by it under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The expedition reflects an intense rivalry between Russia, the United States, Canada and other nations whose shores face the polar ocean for the Arctic's icebound riches.
The US State Department noted that Russia has not yet made public the research allegedly backing its position and said the best available scientific evidence suggests the ridges in question are oceanic by nature "and thus not part of any country's continental shelf."
"While the United States remains skeptical, we have not had the opportunity to examine any of the recently obtained data," said Leslie Phillips, a department spokeswoman.
The U.S. Senate has not yet ratified U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea, which would give Washington a seat on the panel that will consider and eventually rule on the Russian claim.
Phillips said the Bush administration would continue to press hard for ratification in order to give the United States a voice on the commission.
"The Russians were asking to claim 45 percent of the area of the Arctic Ocean," George Newton, former head of U.S. Arctic Research Commission, told WAMU radio station in Washington. "That's significant. With this ability now to mount a more aggressive research program, Russia has made efforts to confirm or get additional data that will enable them to resubmit the claim."
The biggest challenge on Thursday, scientists say, will be for the mini-sub crews to return to their original point of departure to avoid being trapped under a thick crust of ice.
Newton, who served 25 years as a U.S. submarine officer, said both the Arctic ice and the Arctic weather present significant challenges for the mini-subs.
"The character of the ocean surface, the ice that is on the ocean surface, can change dramatically, a storm can arise," Newton said. "It's not a trivial effort."
But the Russian side was confident.
"They have all the necessary navigation equipment to ensure safety," Balyasnikov said.
The Russians are not the only ones eyeing the Arctic seabed. Denmark hopes to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Danish territory of Greenland, not Russia. Canada, meanwhile, plans to spend $7 billion to build and operate up to eight Arctic patrol ships in a bid to help protect its sovereignty.
The U.S. Congress is considering an $8.7 billion budget reauthorization bill for the U.S. 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.
A senior Russian lawmaker said Wednesday that Moscow also needs to bolster its military forces in the region.
Russia "will have to actively defend its interests in the Arctic," Andrei Kokoshin said, according to the Interfax news agency. "We need to reinforce our Northern Fleet and our border guards and build airfields so that we can ensure full control over the situation."