Race for the North Pole Nations Vying for Arctic Treasures

By Simone Schlindwein and

Part 2: The Creeping Colonization of the Ocean Floors

New drilling technology is also making it easier for industrialized nations to penetrate into previously inaccessible realms. The Norwegians, for example, no longer concerned about ice and wave action, have moved their drilling equipment to the ocean floor in the Snøhvit field off the northern Norwegian city of Hammerfest. Aside from facilitating production, new technology also reduces the cost of producing Artic oil and natural gas. Gautier adds an interesting parallel: "Compared to northern Iraq, the Arctic is a pleasant working environment."

But the key questions in the brewing dispute -- who has the right to exploit the Arctic's natural resources and who owns the North Pole -- are difficult to answer, at least for now.

The controversy will presumably be settled in New York. A panel of legal experts and geologists that goes by the unwieldy name "United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf" is currently analyzing the issues at the UN building in New York.

The Law of the Sea Treaty, which regulates the maritime claims of the world's nations, came into effect in 1994. Under the law, each country with access to the oceans is granted a zone within 12 nautical miles off its shores, which is considered part of its sovereign territory. In addition, countries have limited rights of sovereignty, which include the exclusive rights to fishing and exploitation of natural resources, within a 200-mile zone.

But there is one key exception to this rule. Article 76 of the law also allows countries to extend their submarine claims beyond the 200-mile limit if they can provide solid scientific evidence that the continental shelf under their territory extends beneath the ocean. This is precisely the issue when it comes to the mapping of the Lomonosov Ridge.

Uwe Jenisch was part of Germany's diplomatic team when the Law of the Sea Treaty was being fleshed out. A former government ministry division head who now teaches maritime law in Kiel, Jenisch sees Article 76 as a fatal compromise that "leads to the gradual colonization of the ocean floors" because the law only vaguely defines the notion of an extension of a continental shelf.

'Childish' Turf Wars?

"Before we know it, the Icelanders will be trying to lay claim to waters all the way down to the South Polar Sea -- simply because their island sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge," Jenisch says.

Planting the flag: A Russian submarine lays claim to Moscow's ownership of the North Pole. Russia has until 2009 to submit geological evidence that it owns the North Pole.

Planting the flag: A Russian submarine lays claim to Moscow's ownership of the North Pole. Russia has until 2009 to submit geological evidence that it owns the North Pole.

In fact, this is precisely the logic being pursued by the countries bordering on the Arctic. In 2001, Russia submitted its first claim to the Arctic Ocean before the UN's continental shelf commission, citing the Lomonosov Ridge as evidence of its ownership rights. The UN commission initially rejected the Russians' claim as unsound. "The Russians will now have to hurry up and do their homework," says Jenisch.

Time is of the essence. Countries must assert any claims within 10 years of ratification of the Sea Treaty. "Russia, in particular, is under a lot of pressure," says Jenisch. The UN commission wants the country to present its geological evidence by 2009. The Canadians have until 2013 and the Danes until 2014.

Geologist Christian Reichert calls the turf wars over the North Pole "childish." "Everyone is suddenly slapping down his paw and saying: 'It's mine!'" As Germany's former designated representative to the UN's continental shelf commission, Reichert knows his way around the confusing legal issues.

But even experts like Reichert don't yet know what the Lomonosov Ridge connects to. They do agree on one thing though -- that the mountainous ridge was in fact connected to Eurasia about 60 million years ago. They base this conclusion on rock samples obtained in 2004 as part of a spectacular deep-sea drilling operation. "But past geological conditions are insufficient as evidence under the Sea Treaty," says Reichert, who now works as a researcher at Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hanover.

Masses of Biomass

The North Pole was a completely different place 60 million years ago. North America, Greenland and Eurasia were part of a single landmass. The pole itself was surrounded by an inland sea with temperatures similar to those in the waters off Florida today. According to Reichert, "crocodiles cavorted in the flat fresh water."

This inland sea produced an extremely large volume of biomass, which eventually turned into today's massive oil and gas reserves in the Arctic region.

The Lomonosov Ridge has gradually wandered northward since the tropical Paleocene age. Is it still connected to the Eurasian plate? If it is, Russia would be the winner. Or is it connected to the North American plate at Greenland? In that case, Denmark and Canada would stand to profit handsomely. Both versions are also possible, in which case the countries would have to meet in the middle. According to Reichert, another possibility is that the ridge is part of its own tectonic plate. "In that case," he says, "Denmark, Canada and Russia would all miss out."

The data scientists traveling aboard the icebreaker Oden will soon provide could help resolve the issue. In seismic tests, the ocean floor is being mapped in individual layers, producing a computer image that looks like a sandwich with many layers of cold cuts. Any lack of continuity in the lines indicates a fracture, which would suggest that the Lomonosov Ridge and the respective continental plate are not connected.

"Interpreting the data is extremely tricky," says Reichert. Even if a country is fully confident that its geological arguments are correct, this is by no means a guarantee that the UN commission will end up ruling in its favor.

Reichert recalls the year 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska, an enormous territory, from the Russians for the paltry sum of $7.2 million. "At the time, even that didn't seem to be a good investment for the empty wilderness," says Reichert, "but who could have predicted how much Alaska, with its oil and gold riches, would be worth only a few decades later?"


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