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August 03, 2007

"Hunt for the Red October" A Sequel? -Russia Challenges West Under Arctic Ice

Lenin The battle lines of future conflict between nations are emerging along the fault lines of the polar ice caps of our planet. An international race for oil, fish, diamonds and shipping routes, is being accelerated by the impact of global warming on Earth's frozen north.

This past January, a team of Canadian explorers traveled for 47 days from the tip of Antarctica to reach the most remote point of its geographic interior -the "Pole of Inaccessibility" trekking through 250 kilometers – mostly by kiting, using giant kite-sails to pull attached skiers along snowy trails.

When they reached the Pole, they were greeted by a surprising sight – a statue of Vladimir Lenin sticking out two meters above the snow. Lenin's statue was placed there by Russian explorers in 1958.

Nuclearicebreaker_3 The discovery of Lenin's statue might be a foreshadowing of some distant future discovery at the opposite pole.

Two small Russian Mir deep-water submarines launched from the icebreaker Academician Fyodorov completed a risky voyage deep below the North Pole, planting their country's flag in a titanium capsule on the Arctic Ocean floor to symbolically claim what could be vast energy reserves beneath the seabed. Titanium is is resistant to corrosion and will last for several centuries.

The subs dove some 2 1/2 miles to the Arctic shelf near the Franz-Joseph Archipelago, where they collected geologic and water samples, dropped the yard-long capsule, and surfaced near the pole, guided from the murky depths by four radio beacons on the perimeter of a football field-sized hole cut in the thick Arctic pack ice.

The 90-day voyage led by the nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya will include comprehensive monitoring of the Arctic environment and landing on Arctic archipelagos. The vessel will take aboard the nine explorers, who landed on an ice block in early summer. At the end of the voyage, the North Pole 35 expedition will be launched from the Vrangel Island at the 180th latitude, north of the Novosibirsk islands.

The Academician Fyodorov will cross 2,000 nautical miles, including 800 miles through heavy ice, within the next two and a half months.

Warming global temperatures have made the region, a frozen terra incognita for most of human history, increasingly open to shipping and energy exploration.

Expedition leaders Dr. Anatoly Sagalevich told Itar-Tass that "The Arctic region is rich in hydrocarbons, and scientific research is absolutely necessary."

“It is highly probable that Russia’s continental shelf resources may enlarge by 1.2 million square kilometers outside the 200-mile economic zone in the Arctic Ocean. That area may contain 9-10 billion tons of energy resources,” said Natural Resources Ministry’s Institute of World Ocean Geology and Mineral Resources Director Prof. Valery Kamensky.

“It will take over a year to process the scientific data,” Kamensky said. “The information will come from 35 geological stations, seismic-acoustic monitoring of the 690-kilometer-long Lomonosov Ridge, filming done from an Ilyushin Il-18 aircraft, and deep-water photographs and filming.”

The new Russian scientific outpost in the Arctic region, North Pole 35, will operate for two years. It is impossible to develop northern areas of Russia, forecast weather and climate changes on this planet and develop hydrocarbons on the continental shelf without a comprehensive study of the Earth ice cap.

The historic  dive was part serious scientific expedition and part political theater that could spark the start of a fierce legal scramble for control of the sea bed among nations that border the Arctic, including Russia, the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark, through its territory Greenland.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea sets the external boundary of a country by the 12-mile zone, while the economic border is limited to 200 miles. Russia will have to prove that its shelf continues the Siberian continental platform in order to enlarge its territory in the Arctic Ocean. The proof may be received by 2009.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to Manila, Philippines that the expedition should substantiate Russia's claim that the Eurasian continental shelf, which is under its jurisdiction, extends to the North Pole.

The latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the ice cap is warming faster than the rest of the planet and ice is receding. It's a catastrophic scenario for the Arctic ecosystem, for polar bears and other wildlife, and for indiginous populations like the Inuit and the Sami whose ancient cultures depend on frozen waters.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic has as much as 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. Moscow reportedly sees the potential of minerals in its slice of the Arctic sector approaching $2 trillion. Major petroleum companies are now focusing research and exploration on the far north. Russia is developing the vast Shkotman natural gas field off its Arctic coast.

The melting ice cap could open the North Pole region to easy navigation for five months a year, according to the latest Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, revolutionizing shipping the way the Suez Canal did in the 20th Century. Up until recently, reports said it would take 100 years for the ice to melt, but new studies say it could happen in 10-15 years, and the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway have been rushing to stake their claims in the Arctic.

In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the sovereignty issue "a serious, competitive battle" that "will unfold more and more fiercely."

If history is a guide, the polar regions may prove to be the catalyst for the next Cold War and a sequel to the original Hunt for the Red October.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

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