SHIFTING SEA ICE: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S. are all vying to lay claim to the thawing Arctic territory, by sending scientific and military patrols like this Canadian ship outfitted to gather seismic and geographic information. Image: © istockphoto.com
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The deepwater submersibles Mir 1 and Mir 2 (eponymous with the deorbited Russian space station and meaning "peace" or "world") were aptly named—their deployment would stand on par with a space mission in complexity and they certainly caught the "world's" attention. As a nuclear-powered icebreaker crunched through 10 feet (three meters) of August ice at the North Pole, Russian sailors readied the subs for their 2.5-mile (four-kilometer) descent. A hole opened in the ship's wake, and the subs were lowered. At the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, one sub took ground samples, the ostensible purpose of the mission, while the other deposited a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag.
Moscow's 2007 stunt was widely mocked for its ostentatious flouting of diplomatic etiquette but had its intended effect: Other countries were rattled. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper scurried to the Arctic for a sovereignty tour and the Danish science minister released preliminary findings that the North Pole was, in fact, Danish.
Roughly 30 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas lurk beneath the melting ice of the Arctic Ocean, and the coastal nations are eager to start drawing lines on the ocean floor. Although three fifths of the world's other three oceans remain high seas, the Arctic will likely hold onto only two small basins designated as the common heritage of humankind. The rest will be parceled off to Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the U.S.—and they're all looking to get rich.
The rules for seabed resource claims stem from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which allows a 230-mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zone off a nation's coast from the low-tide mark. There is one exception: If a continental shelf juts beyond the 200-mile limit, a country's resource claim may be extended. If such a claim is made, a selection of geologists, geophysicists and hydrographers form a committee to evaluate scientific evidence for a nation's elongated shelf.
International treaties, steeped in precedent, do not always mesh with cutting-edge research. Newly returned from riding along on the U.S. Coast Guard's Healy icebreaker as it surveyed the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska, Vermont Law School professor Betsy Baker reports a failure of science and law to communicate. "There are a number of terms in the law that are scientifically ambiguous," she says. "How do you define a 'natural prolongation'? And where is the 'foot of a slope'?" In the Arctic, unusually broad shelves and long submarine peninsulas complicate the issue.
"You can read these phrases in different ways, but inside Denmark and Greenland there is good agreement on the resulting formulas," says Flemming Christiansen, technical director of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. "The commission is looking into claims now from Australia and New Zealand, so their rulings should soon clarify the matter." Most of the 150 convention signatories have a 2009 deadline to make their claims and as many as 50 coastal states could bid for an extension into their neighboring waters.
Out of the five coastal Arctic nations, only the U.S. has never ratified UNCLOS, so it will not be submitting any data to the committee. "A small number of senators resist ceding any sovereignty, afraid the big, bad U.N. is going to divvy up Arctic resources," Baker says. "The irony is, UNCLOS is not a U.N.-run operation."
No one is likely to start investing in expensive resource exploration and extraction if they could be evicted by an international ruling, so the outer shelves will not see development for another 30 years or so, says Baker. The challenges of drilling at three-mile (five-kilometer) depths should not be underestimated either, because existing platforms cannot be used. The ocean floor will have to house recovery complexes and the hydrocarbons may have to be transported to land via pipeline. On an ever-shifting ice pack, only the strongest reinforced rigs or drill ships can survive, and should a spill occur, cleanup would be almost impossible.