Claim-Jumping the North Pole? Russian Subs Dive to the Arctic Ocean Floor
Two Russian mini-submarines have left behind a titanium flag after exploring the seabed under the North Pole. The Kremlin calls it historic, but also wants to claim the ground -- along with any oil and gas underneath -- for itself.
Two Russian submarines plunged about 4 kilometers to the seabed under North Pole ice on Thursday -- and left behind a flag.
"It's like putting a flag on the moon," said Sergei Balyasnikov, a spokesman for Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Institute, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency. "For the first time in history, humans have reached the ocean floor under the North Pole."
Two Russian research submarines spent about eight hours under Arctic ice on Thursday, measuring ground formations and -- crucially, if only symbolically -- dropping a rust-proof Russian flag. Earlier reports had said the flag was contained in a titanium capsule, but the Itar-Tass news agency said the flag itself was titanium.
During the Cold War, Soviet and US nuclear submarines crossed back and forth under the Arctic ice cap many times, but no one so far has claimed to reach the polar ocean floor. The Kremlin wants to declare about one-half of the seabed there -- and any oil and gas lying underneath -- as Russian territory. In that sense the mission may belong to a larger project by Russia to position itself as an energy-resource superpower. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Thursday, "The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia's claim but to show that our (continental) shelf reaches to the North Pole."
Institute agency spokesman Balyasnikov, however, had said earlier, "It's a very important move for Russia to demonstrate its potential in the Arctic."
The scientists started their mission at about 5:30 GMT on Thursday from a hole in the Arctic ice pack carved by an atomic-powered ship. The icebreaker Rossiya plowed open the hole during most of Wednesday night and Thursday morning, according to Russia's RTR television. The two submarines -- two of only five manned vehicles in the world able to dive beyond three kilometers -- plunged 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) to the ocean floor.
The big challenge for the pilots on Thursday was finding their way back to the same hole before running out of air. Before the dive, expedition leader and member of parliament Artur Chilingarov said, "I am scared and I don't hide it." But he made it back alive. "There is a yellowish gravel down here," he reported during the dive. "No creatures of the deep are visible."
The expedition mapped part of the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater mountain range that Russia argued in 2001 was an extension of its own continental shelf. The UN rejected that argument for lack of evidence, but Russia plans to resubmit the claim to the UN in 2009.
If recognized, the claim would bring 1.2 million square kilometers of seabed under Russian influence. Current laws grant countries an economic zone of 200 nautical miles beyond their land borders, but the zone can be extended where a country can prove a geological relationship between its own territory and the land beyond. Right now the North Pole is administered by the International Seabed Authority; it is not recognized as the province of any nation.
Several countries with land bordering the Arctic -- including the US, Canada, and Denmark -- have made competing claims for the North Pole, but Russia hopes to gather evidence on Thursday to back up its case.
"With this ability now to mount a more aggressive research program," said George Newton, former head of the US Arctic Research Commission, "Russia has made efforts to confirm or get additional data that will enable them to resubmit the claim."