As a nuclear-powered icebreaker crunched through 10 feet of August ice at the North Pole, Russian sailors readied two deepwater submersibles for their two-and-a-half-mile descent. Dubbed Mir 1 and Mir 2 (mir meaning “world”), the subs were aptly named—their deployment was about to catch the world’s attention. A hole opened in the ship’s wake, and the subs were lowered. At the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, one sub took seabed samples, the ostensible purpose of the mission, while the other deposited a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag, symbolically claiming this undersea turf for its homeland.

Moscow’s 2007 stunt was mocked widely 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.

Russia’s action helped to kick off what has become a fierce political struggle over who owns the Arctic. Russia, Canada, Denmark (through its independent territory of Greenland), Norway and the U.S. all have some sovereignty in the far north—and they are all hoping for more. Nearly a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and natural gas lie above the Arctic Circle, and recent estimates suggest most of it lurks offshore. When these riches were capped year-round by solid ice, nobody gave them much thought. But now that global warming is eliminating ice and changing coastlines, the five coastal nations are eager to start drawing lines on the seafloor.

But rights to polar resources won’t be determined by planting flags in a frontier-style land rush. Rather existing treaties will parcel out new territory based on submarine geology. That legal framework puts a whole new emphasis on mapping and exploring the ocean floor at the edge of what is technically possible, because those efforts will determine what areas a given country can exploit later. When the murk settles, the Arctic will likely hold on to only two small basins as the common heritage of humankind. The rest will be at the mercy of new ownership.

Deep Concerns
The rules for claiming seabed resources stem from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty, this agreement grants countries sole rights to an area within 230 miles of their coastlines, measured typically from the low-tide mark. There is one exception: if the submerged margin of the continent juts beyond this so-called exclusive economic zone, a country may extend its claim to seabed resources accordingly.

Although roughly 15 percent of the world’s oceans overlie continental margins, these bands suffer from the logistical drawbacks of land and deep sea: inconveniently deep water and uncomfortably complex terrain. An influx of mapping grants from Arctic coastal nations has spurred an all-out assault on these data black holes, unprecedented in its scale and speed.

As the border of a continent extends underwater from the shoreline, the submerged shelf resembles coastal land beside it. This shallowly submerged extension of the land is known as the continental shelf. Deep underneath the open sea lies the other major topographic surface of the sea­floor, the relatively flat abyssal plain.

Both the continental shelf and the abyssal plain have been surveyed more or less extensively. The sloping transition zone between them, however, represents a belt of ignorance. Generally, the flat shelf breaks at around 350 feet below sea level, where an abrupt drop signals the start of the continental slope, followed at two or three miles deep by a more level segment called the continental rise. It is the meeting point between the continental rise and the abyssal plain that marks the margin’s outer edge. This boundary can make or break a territorial claim over seabed resources but is often masked by thick sediment layers or other confounding features.

Mixed Messages
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 continental 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 G. Christian­sen, deputy director of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.

Every nation has 10 years from the date it ratifies UNCLOS to present its case for an extended territorial claim to a commission of scientists designated to evaluate the evidence and make a recommendation. Ultimately, however, it is up to the member countries to settle disputes among themselves. Out of the five coastal Arctic nations, Russia and Norway have already submitted claims. Canada and Denmark have until 2013 and 2014, respectively. Only the U.S. won’t be submitting any claims to the commission, at least not for now, because it has yet to ratify the treaty.

“A small number of senators resist ceding any sovereignty, afraid the big, bad U.N. is going to divvy up Arctic resources,” Baker says. That reluctance may soon change, however. In a sweeping Arctic national security directive issued during his last days in office, former president George W. Bush called on the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty as “the most effective way to achieve international recognition and legal certainty for our extended continental shelf.”

No nation is likely to start investing in expensive resource exploration and extraction if it could be evicted by a neighboring country’s extended seabed claim under UNCLOS, so the outer shelves will not see development for another 30 years or so, Baker points out. The challenges of drilling at three-mile 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.

Eager Investors
Ongoing treaty negotiations have not deterred those willing to gamble on a rich return. The Arctic’s undiscovered but technically recoverable oil is on the order of 90 billion barrels, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report released late in 2008. The same study cites 1,670 trillion cubic feet of unexplored natural gas, most of which lies in the Arctic Ocean closest to Russia. The U.K.-based oil company BP has signed a $17-billion exploration deal with Russia in the hope of replacing the declining output of its current fields in the North Sea.

Norway’s state-owned Statoil has cold-weather expertise with which it hopes to exploit deposits in the Barents Sea, and Canada-based Imperial Oil is among a handful of companies bidding on Canadian claims in the Beaufort Sea. “Seismic [surveys] will help us determine where we might want to drill, but ultimately we won’t know if we’ve picked the wrong place until we’ve actually created a well,” says Glen McCrimmon, Imperial’s geoscience manager for the area.

Aside from already valuable commodities such as oil and natural gas, an alternative source of fossil energy may lie trapped in the Arctic seafloor. Gas hydrates—a mixture of ice and methane—are found only under high pressure and at cold temperatures, and they are expected to make up a significant portion of the energy mix once existing oil fields dwindle, says David Scott, manager of the Northern Resources Development Program for Natural Resources Canada. The Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation has bankrolled much of the research into depressurizing these deposits, many of which lie a mile under the ocean surface.

Even with the best geophysical data, there will still be political questions. The largest feature that demands negotiating is the Lomonosov Ridge, a chain of undersea mountains that transects the Arctic Ocean, extending 1,240 miles from Siberia through the North Pole to Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Lomonosov is likely a slice of the Siberian continental shelf that broke off northward about 63 million years ago, when the Eurasian Basin opened up on the Arctic Ocean floor, but its current ties to Russia are disputed. Russia, Canada and Denmark may all end up claiming portions of the ridge—and the rich resources connected to it.

“It is possible that the Lomonosov Ridge is attached to all three” countries, says Jørn Skov Nielsen, deputy minister of minerals and petroleum for the Greenland Home Rule Government. “Our geological investigation may find that the North Pole area is part of Greenland’s shelf.”

“It’s hard to imagine the ridge is continuous for such a long distance,” contends Benoit Beauchamp, director of the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary, Alberta. “But it’s not rocket science to find out. Just expensive and hard to access under the ice.”

Playing Nice
Although some questions will ultimately come down to a judgment call, amicable solutions are not a fantasy. Crews of ­American, Russian, Canadian and Danish research vessels demonstrate an impressive degree of collaboration and collegiality. Breaking ice for one another, they jointly search for data that often cannot be shared from one ship to the next. “For any national product with high national interest, we must keep things classified,” Christiansen says. “But if we support one another in data collection, we will likely make the same sorts of arguments in submitting our claims.”

It’s not just scientists who have a precedent of cooperation to follow. At the other end of the world, the Antarctic Treaty freezes all territorial claims indefinitely and bans exploitation of the region’s mineral resources until 2048. Of course, the Arctic has been populated and developed for too long for sovereignty to be retracted, but political alliances for the glob­al good are possible. In the meantime, geologists don’t question the economic motivation of their windfall of short-term grants—they just work the field and hope it lasts.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Arctic Landgrab".