Saturday, August 11, 2007

North Pole dancing: Denmark joins the Coldest War

Danish researchers will set sail for the North Pole tomorrow to collect geological data on an underwater ridge they believe is connected to Danish claimed territory in Greenland. The Danish team will collect bathymetric, gravity and seismic data to map the seabed under the ice. The mission is an escalation of tensions around polar mineral explorations tensions in the wake of the similar Russian mission last week.

Although the seabed under the pole is not regarded as part of any single country's territory, Russian explorers planted a flag last Tuesday on the seabed 4,200m below the pole. Russia's most famous explorer, Artur Chilingarov led the expedition to plant a rustproof flag in a capsule on the ocean seabed under the pole. "The Arctic is Russian," Chilingarov said earlier. "We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf”.

The polar zone is believed to hold vast resources of oil and natural gas that will become more accessible as climate change melts the ice cap. Russia and Denmark are two of the five countries with land borders that approach the North Pole. Norway, Canada and the US are the other three. The other countries are less than impressed with Russia’s latest polar manoeuvre. Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mackay said Russia was behaving like a 15th century explorer. “You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory',” he said. US Department of State deputy spokesman Tom Casey said: “A metal flag, a rubber flag or a bed sheet on the ocean floor ... doesn't have any legal standing or effect on this claim.”

Nevertheless the US has its own plans to assert its ownership of polar regions. An American Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy, headed to the Arctic last week to map the sea floor off Alaska. Russia claims this mission shows that the US is actively joining the competition for resources in the Arctic. Larry Mayer, director of the Centre for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire, denies this claim and said the purpose of the Healy’s mapping work was to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska. "In that area, the country would have rights over the resources of the sea floor and subsurface that would include drilling for oil and gas," he said.

Russia’s claim to the pole is based on an underwater mountain known as the Lomonosov Ridge which it states is an extension of the Russian landmass. This gives Russia a claim to a triangular area up to the pole, allowing it rights due according to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. Article 76 of the convention says a state can claim a 200 nautical mile exclusive zone and beyond that up to 150 nautical miles of rights on the seabed. Of most interest to Russia is the key fact is that these distances are measured from where the continental shelf ends. Russia will aim to show that the Lomonosov Ridge, a seam that crosses the seabed from Russia to Greenland, is an extension of Russia’s continental shelf.

As a result of Chilingarov’s mission, Russia has now laid formal claim to a triangle-shaped area of the Arctic Ocean. Its base is formed by the Russian coast from the Kola Peninsula in the west to the tip of the Chukotka Peninsula in the east, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The apex of this 1.2 million sq km triangle is the North Pole. Russia had traditionally claimed this territory but was forced to drop the claim after it ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1997. The mapping of the Lomosonov is the attempt to win back the territory.

The area under consideration has immense wealth and economic importance. Some estimates have the continental shelf holding about 100 billion tons of oil plus a wealth of fish species. A study by the US Geological Survey (USGS) said 25 percent of all untapped reserves in areas known to contain oil are found north of the Arctic Circle. As most of the Arctic is unexplored that figure is likely to be higher still. "It's very likely there's a great deal of oil and gas out there," said Don Gautier, a research geologist at USGS who is leading an effort to put a number on those reserves. "The real possibility exists that you could have another world class petroleum province like the North Sea."

There is also the matter of the Northern Sea Route, (NSR) the shortest way from Europe to Asia and the Pacific coast of America. The NSR is a sort of North-East passage which runs through the Arctic Ocean along Russia's northern coast and which would become a highway to transport oil and gas from Arctic deposits. The NSR has traditionally been off-limits to international shipping due to difficult ice conditions and the geo-political problems during the Cold War era. Russia officially re-opened the NSR for foreign shipping in 1991, and improved ice-breaking technology is being developed. Although the NSR is impeded by ice and Russian political instability, it avoids the draft limitations of the Suez and Panama canals, as well as the political instability in the Middle East and Panama, and piracy problems in SE Asia. There are also indications that global warming may improve the ice conditions of the NSR.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment team suggested in 2004 that the Arctic summer ice cap could melt completely before the end of this century because of global warming. Meanwhile another race is on to protect interests in the polar region. Canada will build up to eight new patrol ships and the US Congress is considering a proposal to build two new heavy polar ships. The US and Canada argue over rights in the North-west Passage, Norway and Russia differ over a disputed region of the Barents Sea, Canada and Denmark are competing over the tiny Hans island off Greenland, the Russian parliament is refusing to ratify a 1990 agreement with the US over the Bering Sea and Denmark is claiming the North Pole itself. A new and dangerous Cold War may be about to begin.

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