- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2007

MOSCOW (AP) — An ambitious expedition to bolster Russia’s claims to much of the oil and gas wealth of the Arctic Ocean headed to the North Pole today, plowing its way through unbroken Arctic ice behind a sturdy Russian icebreaker.

An advance party of six researchers flew to the North Pole in a helicopter early today and spent 11 minutes on the ice, scouting the route for the icebreaker Rossiya and the scientific research vessel Akademik Fyodorov, according to the government-owned Itar-Tass news agency.

The Rossiya, which was crunching its way through an unbroken sheet of multiyear ice, was about 45 miles from the pole, Itar-Tass said. The research ship was close behind. They were expected to reach their destination around midday today.

The voyage, led by noted polar explorer and Russian legislator Artur Chilingarov, is part of the Kremlin’s effort to buttress its claims under international agreements to a large portion of the northern polar region.


The Kremlin has stressed that the expedition has scientific aims, but it also is intended to help expand Russia’s energy reserves and its global political clout.

“There’s no question that this particular expedition does have some kind of larger political and economic focus,” said Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

At the pole, Russian scientists plan to dive to a depth of more than 13,200 feet beneath the pole in two minisubmarines and drop a metal capsule containing the Russian flag on the seabed.

The symbolic gesture, along with the collection of geologic data by expedition scientists, is intended to prop up Moscow’s claims to more than 460,000 square miles of the Arctic shelf — which by some estimates may contain 10 billion tons of oil and gas deposits.

The expedition reflects an intense rivalry among Russia, the United States, Canada and other nations whose shores face the northern polar ocean for the Arctic’s icebound riches.

About 100 scientists aboard the Akademik Fyodorov are looking for evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge — a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region — is a geologic extension of Russia and therefore can be claimed by Russia under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In addition to dropping a titanium tube containing the Russian flag, the submarines will collect specimens of Arctic flora and fauna and videotape the dives.

The biggest challenge, scientists say, will be for the minisub crews to return to their original point of departure and avoid being trapped under a thick ice crust.

Denmark hopes to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Danish territory of Greenland, not Russia. Canada, meanwhile, plans to spend $7 billion to build and operate up to eight Arctic patrol ships in a bid to help protect its sovereignty.

The U.S. Congress is considering an $8.7 billion budget reauthorization bill for the U.S. Coast Guard that includes $100 million to operate and maintain the nation’s three existing polar icebreakers. The bill also authorizes the Coast Guard to construct two new vessels.