Arctic: Fight for the Top Of the World

As global warming melts the Arctic ice, dreams of a short sea passage to Asia--and riches beneath the surface--have been revived. With Russia planting a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, Canada talking tough and Washington wanting to be a player, who will win the world's new Great Game?

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Uriel Sinai / Getty

Melted water runs over a glacier in Greenland.

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Kalluk and his people will just have to adjust, but the polar bears may not be able to. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) predicts that shrinking sea ice will mean a two-thirds reduction in their population by midcentury. Not even strict adherence to the Kyoto accord on limiting greenhouse gases would stop an Arctic meltdown, which means the Arctic, like nowhere else on Earth, is a place where efforts to mitigate global warming have yielded to full-bore adaptation to its impact. That process is freighted with irony. With gas and oil prices near historic highs and with scant prospect of any decrease in world demand for energy, it is only prudent to get a sense of what resources lie below the newly accessible sea. But there is something paradoxical about seeking in the Arctic the very carbon fuels that are melting the northern ice. "The rush to exploit Arctic resources can only perpetuate the vicious cycle of human-induced climate change," says Mike Townsley of Greenpeace International.

The rush will go on for arctic resources, even though it is far from clear how extensive they really are. An often cited USGS report from 2000 estimated that the Arctic could contain 25% of the world's undiscovered oil reserves. More precise guesses are just beginning to come out. Late last month the USGS put total reserves in the East Greenland Rift Basins at 31.4 billion bbl. of "oil equivalent," mostly in the form of natural gas. (That would be the equivalent of about four years of U.S. oil consumption.) While the assessment of the region won't be finished until next year, Don Gautier, one of the survey's principal investigators, says, "there's no doubt that certain geologic provinces in the Arctic have significant oil and gas reserves." Some of the most attractive are in the Barents Sea. In Russian waters, east of Norway's Snohvit deposit, lies the Shtokman gas field, thought to be 10 times as big.

Granted, not everyone is convinced that the Arctic will be Big Oil's new savior. A study by energy consultants Wood Mackenzie and Fugro Robertson concluded last year that Arctic reserves would prove "disappointing." "Our assessment is that the Arctic has not 25% but 10% of world reserves," says Wood Mackenzie vice president Andrew Latham. "And considering how hard it is to get, a very large fraction of that won't be developed." But for now, such downbeat assessments are being shrugged off. Just as global warming has made it easier to get to the Arctic, so high oil prices have made it worth the hassle of doing so. This summer's activities were, in essence, attempts to claim the rights to seabeds that few considered worth a walrus's whiskers a generation ago, when oil was cheap and the ice was thick.

Whose Ice Is It?

It's one thing to covet the resources that may now be accessible in the Arctic. It's another to establish a legal claim to them that others will recognize. Under the provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country has exclusive economic rights to the sea's resources within 200 nautical miles (230 miles, 370 km) of its coast. The treaty provides for extending that limit up to 350 nautical miles if a country can prove that its continental shelf extends from the coastline beyond the current limit. That explains the rush by Russia, Denmark and Canada to try to use the murky form of the underwater Lomonosov Ridge to expand the territory they control. The ridge, a largely uncharted geological formation named for an 18th century Russian polymath born near the northern coastal city of Arkhangel'sk, runs under the Pole from north of Canada's Ellesmere Island and Denmark's Greenland to the New Siberian Islands of Russia. Each of the three countries hopes the ridge's contours and rock content will throw up proof that it is an extension of the continental shelf rather than a strictly deep-ocean formation.

It was with an eye to bolstering Moscow's claims that Artur Chilingarov, a member of Russia's parliament, enlisted fellow parliamentarian Vladimir Gruzdev and the commander of the Mir 1 submersible, Anatoli Sagalevich, for last month's aquatic assault on the North Pole. With the funding (and presence aboard) of a Swedish millionaire and an Australian adventure-tour operator, the expedition trailed an icebreaker to the pole, where Sagalevich piloted one of two submersibles to a depth of 13,100 ft. (4,301 m), planted the Russian flag and then skillfully resurfaced through the shifting holes in the ice. Chilingarov said the flag was to "stake the place for Russia," although, in truth, Russia is already a dominant force in the Arctic; it has the world's largest fleet of icebreakers and long experience developing its icy northern coastline.

Chilingarov and his team were given a heroes' reception in Moscow and an audience with President Vladimir Putin. But the Russians' adventurism also set off an irritable and predictable backlash. Canada's then Foreign Minister Peter MacKay dismissed the Russian effort as a "show." "This isn't the 15th century," he said. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory.'" In Washington, Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation said, "Russia's attempted grab is a cause for concern" and called on the U.S. government to "formulate a strong response."

Sagalevich professes bafflement. "I don't really know why some people got so nervous about [our] placing the Russian flag there," he told Time. "The Americans placed their flag on the moon, and it doesn't mean the moon became theirs." The Russian acknowledges that though the mission "excited the whole world," it amounted to only a "pinprick" in Moscow's continued efforts to undergird its case for extended sovereignty in the Arctic. (In 2002 a U.N. commission shelved Russia's claim to more of the Arctic for lack of detailed technical evidence.) Nor, despite this summer's bravado, is it clear that Russia has real plans to follow up the Mir expedition. Robert Nigmatulin, director of the Institute of Ocean Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says establishing a claim to the continental shelf before 2009--as Russia must do under the terms of the unclos--would require drilling deepwater seabed samples, technology that he says Russia does not possess and is not inclined to pay for.

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