Update on Arctic Expeditions

In prior years, the question of who owns the North Pole and the Arctic in general was simply a theoretical one. The territory had been trapped in ice all year long and was unable to be navigated, but the ice cap has been shrinking since the early 1900s. Moreover, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this process has sped up in the last ten years and the area is now navigable.

A three-person team plans to walk 1,200 miles from Point Barrow in Alaska to the North Pole in order to take accurate measures of the thickness of the Arctic ice and measure its melting rate. Because remote tests, either via submarine radar or satellites, are not as accurate as ground-based measurements, estimates of when the Arctic ice will completely disappear vary greatly. Pen Hadow, leader of the Vanco Artic Survey, hopes that his team's dragging of a ground-penetrating radar that measures snow depth and ice thickness every 8 inches on foot will provide a much more accurate prediction. The Vanco Artic Survey is set to begin in February and expected to take 100 to 120 days to complete. See the Vanco Artic Survey's Web site here for more information.

Besides environmental interest in the area, economic interest has also been sparked. As the area becomes navigable, the estimated 25% of the world’s undiscovered gas and oil reserves beneath the Arctic Ocean is now up for grabs. According to the United Nations (UN) 1982 Law of Sea Convention, each nation has a 12-mile offshore territorial limit and exclusive rights in a 200-mile “economic zone” outside of those 12 miles. The Law of the Sea allows the economic zone to be extended if a nation can prove that the seabed is part of a country’s geological terrain. This means that five nations have territory within the Arctic Ocean and the possibility of the claiming the untapped resources there: Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States. All of these countries have officially or unofficially voiced Artic claims.

Russia was the first country to attempt to claim Arctic territory when it made an official submission to the commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on December 20, 2001, asking to extend its continental shelf to include over 460,000 square miles of international Arctic territory, an area larger than France and Germany combined. This claim, which consisted of the North Pole and two underwater ridges, including Lomonosov Ridge, was rejected by the Commission in early 2002 because additional research was necessary to prove Russia’s claim.

In the present, Russia has begun an expedition entitled “Arktika 2007,” the goal of which is to explore the structure of the seafloor beneath Arctic regions in order to determine whether they are part of Russia’s continental shelf. Once the studies have been completed, Russia hopes to resubmit its claim to the UN in 2009. The expedition, led by Artur Chilingarov, departed Saint Petersburg on July 10 of this year and made history on August 2 when two mini-subs, Mir- and Mir-2, descended 4,300 meters and reached Lomonosov Ridge beneath the North Pole. The subs collected sediment and water samples and placed a rust-proof titanium Russian flag on the seabed, symbolically claiming the area for the Siberian nation. Shortly after, Chilingarov told Russian President Vladimir Putin, “It would have been wrong to be there and not to plant the Russian flag -- Russia has always been an Arctic power.” Then, on Thursday, September 20, Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry released a statement that its preliminary tests on gathered samples prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is part of Russia’s continental shelf.

The planting of the Russian flag outraged Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mackay, who stated, “You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century.” Canada is also conducting a project to map the seafloor on its side of the Lomonosov Ridge, which may be foreshadowing a future claim of Canadian sovereignty over the area. Besides this $70-million project, Canada recently announced plans to build a deep water port in its far north and build eight icebreakers to secure and patrol its interests in the region.

On Sunday, August 12, Danish scientists began a month-long expedition in the Arctic to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is part of the Danish territory of Greenland. The scientists are traveling on the Swedish icebreaker Oden, aided by a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Sonar and other equipment will be used by the team’s 40 scientists, 10 of whom are Danish, to map the Arctic seafloor. A Swedish research group that is studying Arctic glacial history is also aboard the Oden. The results of the expedition could lead to Denmark making its own claim to extend its continental shelf in Greenland.

Though currently not as vocal as the others, Norway made an official claim to extend its Arctic territory on November 27, 2006. The country wishes to increase its shelf in the Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea, and the Arctic Ocean. However, unlike other countries, its Arctic Ocean claim does not extend to the North Pole. Though Norway is quiet as it awaits the CLCS’ decision, Norwegian oil companies are pushing further north and, as the debate heats up, the country will most likely start expressing its opinions on other countries’ current Arctic actions. Additionally, Norway’s extension claim states that it may submit further claims in the future.

According to the Law of the Sea, the United States could also claim the Arctic territory next to Alaska. However, Congress has failed to sign the treaty and thus the U.S. is currently unable to claim more oil and mineral resources on the continental shelf near Alaska. Regardless, as most of the nation’s 90,000 miles of coastline is in Alaska, the increase in maritime traffic in the Arctic has caused the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to focus on securing the area. The United States’ concern over energy resources and security in the Arctic explains why President Bush urged the Senate to ratify the treaty on May 15, stating, “Joining will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed forces worldwide. It will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain.” Despite not ratifying the treaty, a USCG icebreaker, the USCGS Healy, began an expedition to the Arctic to map the seabed off of Alaska in August, which may be the precursor of a U.S. Arctic claim.

All of these claims have roused the interest of the Arctic’s indigenous people, the Inuit. Earlier in September, the President of the Greenland Chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Aqqaluk Lynge, expressed a desire for the Inuit to have a “voice” in how territorial claims are dealt with. Though the disputed areas of the North Pole are uninhabited, Inuit leaders believe that increased activities in the area could affect their communities by changing the migration of animals that they hunt and disrupting ice cover.

These Arctic claims have also sparked interest in the Atlantic seabed. The United Kingdom (UK) is reportedly planning to present a formal claim to tens of thousands of square miles of the area. Just this week, the UK, Denmark, Ireland, and Iceland began talks regarding the Hatton-Rockall Plateau in the North Atlantic.

Nevertheless, many geologists believe that the Arctic samples that these different nations are collecting will not prove once and for all that the territory belongs to one of them. In fact, some assert that the technology required for the type of deep drilling necessary to prove “ownership” of the Arctic seabed does not yet even exist. Still others maintain that all of the world’s land was once connected, and thus will have some similar geological makeup, but a European nation, for example, can not claim that the United States is technically part of its territory because of that fact. These geologists say that other tests would have to be performed as well, such as depth soundings, in order to fully “prove” each nation’s claim. In any case, it seems that future grade school students will be seeing a reenactment of the colonization of the Americas on an underwater playing field.

The requirements for extending a country’s continental shelf can be found on the CLCS’ Web site here.