Race for the North Pole Nations Vying for Arctic Treasures

As climate change liberates the Arctic Ocean from ice, it is also triggering a race to claim the ownership of natural resources. First Russia, and now Denmark, the United States and Canada are launching geological expeditions to support their claims. Their calculation: If the polar ice cap melts, they will get access to massive oil and gas reserves.

By Simone Schlindwein and


For Christian Marcussen, the sounds of his adventures are the sounds of ice rubbing against steel -- a scraping and groaning, and a muffled rumbling and grinding noise.

These sounds have accompanied the Danish geophysicist around the clock for days now, and they have been getting louder. Marcussen is on board the Oden, a Swedish research icebreaker headed for a place known among seafarers as the graveyard of pack ice: the Lincoln Sea, a flat corner of the north Arctic Ocean located north of Greenland.

Marcussen is passionate about the poles. "If you've been there once you'll always want to go back," he says. Marcussen has been there enough to be worried about a specific moment: when the creaking noises suddenly stop and silence descends on the black and yellow steel giant of a ship.

In this inhospitable environment, the pack ice builds up to a thickness of 15 meters (49 feet). The sheets of ice, driven by currents, are under extreme pressure. "I'm not confident enough yet to say whether we'll reach our destination," says Marcussen. If the mission fails, millions of euros will have been sunk in the world's "eighth ocean."

But it would be less of a scientific and more of a political setback. Marcussen is in the region on behalf of the Danish government, which is keen to see the data the geophysicist hopes to collect from the icy depths with the aid of seismic waves.

The Arctic Resources Grab

When Arthur Chilingarov, a member of the Russian parliament, rammed his country's flag into the ocean floor at the North Pole in a spectacular submarine dive three weeks ago, the other countries whose territory abuts the North Pole suddenly went into high gear. The Russian effort was meaningless under international law, but its symbolic value was immense.

The awakening giant, its growing power based on vast reserves of natural resources, was asserting its claim to ownership of a vast stretch of the Arctic Ocean covering 1.2 million square kilometers (463,323 square miles). But Canada, the United States, Norway and especially Denmark, as the country that controls Greenland, are also claiming large sections of the sea. Could this be the beginning of a new cold war in the Arctic Ocean?

If it is, the geologists will be playing a key role. The most important question they'll have to answer is this: What country does the Lomonosov Ridge connect to? The 1,800-kilometer (1,118-mile) undersea mountain range stretches from Siberia, across the North Pole, and to the shores of Greenland. But which continental shelf does it connect with -- Russia's or Greenland's?

If Marcussen and his team from the Danish Geological Service in Copenhagen can prove, with their seismic tests, that the ridge is part of the Greenland continental shelf, the kingdom could expand its claims of sovereignty beyond the current limit, which extends to 200 nautical miles off the Greenland coast. Meanwhile, the Russians are busy trying to prove that exactly the same thing holds true at the other end of the Lomonosov Ridge -- that it connects to Russian territory.

The race to uncover important data under maritime law is in full swing. Last week the Healy, a US Coast Guard icebreaker, set sail to more precisely map the ocean floor off Alaska. And next door in Canada, the issue is so important that it got the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who announced that his country plans to establish two new military bases in the Arctic and that his government has budgeted the equivalent of $5 billion to quickly acquire eight new icebreakers. Harper intends to use the vessels to defend his country's icy shores, as well as to acquire new geological data to underscore his country's claims under maritime law.

"Every country has the right to pursue its interests to the fullest," says Danish scientist Marcussen. Helge Sander, his country's minister of science, technology and innovation, puts it even more bluntly: "The Russians can put down as many flags as they want," he said acerbically, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin's Arctic media coup, "but in the end, having the best data is what counts."

Graphic: An Icy Treasure Chest
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Graphic: An Icy Treasure Chest

Crocodile Tears for a Melting Arctic

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen shed plenty of crocodile tears last week when he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to lament Greenland's melting glaciers. In truth, though, the nations bordering the Arctic are just waiting for the North Pole to finally become ice-free. Global warming is likely to do them the favor, and even faster than was previously thought.

"Within 20 years we'll be able to travel by ship in the summer from Spitzbergen (a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean) across the North Pole to Asia," predicts Heidemarie Kassens, a scientist who specializes in the study of ice at the Leibnitz Institute of Marine Sciences in the northern German city of Kiel. Next week Kassens and Russian scientists will set off on a joint expedition to the Laptev Sea in northern central Siberia. "It's the birthplace of Arctic ice," says the polar researcher. Older data, according to Kassens, reveal that there has been a decline in the rate of sea ice production north of Siberia.

While Kassens voices her politically correct worries about the global climate, her Russian counterparts take a far more relaxed view of the developments. "There's a flip side to every coin," says Vladimir Trojan, a geophysicist with the University of St. Petersburg.

For Russia, as well as for the other four countries bordering on the Polar region, the melting sea ice will open up an incredible treasure: unimagined quantities of natural resources, especially oil and natural gas. Scientists believe that a quarter of all undiscovered hydrocarbons worldwide lie hidden beneath the icy sediments of the Arctic Ocean.

The US Geological Survey is currently preparing a new analysis for Congress. Donald Gautier, one of the principal authors of the as yet unpublished study, is willing to reveal a key piece of information: "The estimates will go up."

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