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International Polar Bear

International Polar Year made an unexpected contribution to the gaiety of nations earlier this year, when a Russian expedition (billed as an IPY contribution) planted a flag on the Lomonosov Ridge…

Geoscientist 17.10 October 2007

On August 2 this year, at a depth of 4261m, a Russian submarine – part of the Arktika 2007 expedition that forms part of International Polar Year - planted a titanium flag in the sea bed. In doing so it unleashed a wonderful silly-season story upon the international media. Sinister Russkies were up to their old tricks again, it appeared, putting Putin in pole position for a Kremlin carve-up of the world’s great wildernesses, and so on, and so on. But Russia was not the first – and won’t be the last – to make such claims. They just did it better.

According to the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries bordering the Arctic Ocean may extend their territorial waters (normally set to 200 nautical miles – 320km - from the coast) on geological grounds if they prove to the Convention’s satisfaction that the sea bed in question is a truly natural extension of their country’s continental shelf. The ensuing row has brought the geology of the Arctic Ocean bed to the fore.

The Arctic Ocean is crossed by three ridges. One is a spreading ridge – said to be the slowest on the planet - the Gakkel Ridge. On the other side of the pole lies the Alpha Ridge; while between the two (running directly under the geographic pole) is the Lomonosov Ridge. Stretching 1800km from the New Siberian Islands to Ellesmere Island, it rises up to 3700m above the ocean floor to a minimum depth of 954m. It was first discovered (in 1948) by Soviet expeditions who named it for Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765).

Much more recently, with an eye to global warming and shrinking ice cover no doubt, all Arctic powers (especially Russia, Canada and Denmark via Greenland) – have claimed the Lomonosov Ridge for their own, asserting that it in some way originated from, or was connected to, “their” continental shelf.

The Canadians, particularly, were unhappy bunnies on August 2, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay spluttering: “This isn't the 15th Century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags ….” (which is pretty rude for a Canadian minister). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov countered that: "The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia's claim but to show that our shelf reaches to the North Pole”, and went on to say that the issue “can be tackled solely on the basis of … the International Convention …”

This was a very odd statement. If a claim must be based on geology, planting a flag on something is futile. But if for a moment we imagine that such an act could establish that the crust beneath the North Pole “belonged” to Russia, then under the international conventions invoked by the minister, it would in fact amount precisely to “claiming the territory”.

Just a whiff of PR wheeze emanated from the whole exercise; but it did, at least, bring the unknown geology of an inaccessible piece of seabed very much to political attention. Considering what may be at stake (USGS reckons over 25% of the world’s untapped oil and gas may lie north of the Arctic Circle) one gets the feeling that it isn't going to stay unknown for very long.

After Russia’s original territorial claim, way back in December 2001, the UN Convention parked the issue, calling for “more research”. Undoubtedly Geoscientist readers, and the organisers of International Polar Year, would wholeheartedly concur…