The North Pole: A new imperial battleground

It is one of the planet's last great wildernesses. But suddenly everybody wants a piece of the Arctic - or more specifically, the reserves of oil and gas below the seabed, which have become a lucrative target for the surrounding powers.
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Bizarre-looking creatures living undiscovered in the dark, freezing waters beneath the ice of the Arctic are about to receive their first human visitors.

A miniature Russian submarine, supervised by an elderly scientist with a magnificent bushy grey beard, is due to make its first probe to the ocean bed beneath the North Pole, where no human machine has ventured before. And given that the marine life down there have never seen or heard anything remotely like a submarine, the deep ocean inhabitants will probably let it pass it without fear and with minimal curiosity.

But there are cries of alarm to be heard above the ice cap, across the far side of the North Pole in Canada, which looks like being the loser in a race to conquer planet Earth's final frontier.

Nobody actually knows what lies under the Arctic. There are probably undiscovered species of marine life that will fascinate scientists, who will want to know how they have evolved to survive high pressure and intense cold. As the ice recedes in the face of global warming, huge new fishing grounds are being uncovered, and soon trawlers will be dropping their nets in areas that used to be patrolled by polar bears.

But it is not the fauna that is threatening to turn the polar environment into the frontier in a new kind of Cold War, it is the oil and gas below the seabed.

Until recently, it was not worth anyone's while to attempt to drill beneath the Arctic, because the harvest could never justify the cost. That has changed since world oil prices were pushed upward by the rapid growth of the Chinese and Indian economies.

There are varying estimates as to how much oil lies below the Arctic, but one possibility is that it could have reserves on a scale that almost matches Saudi Arabia's. The US Geological Survey has estimated that it has 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. In total, it is thought that about 10 billion cubic metres of hydrocarbon fuels are down there, along with diamonds and metal ore.

This is threatening to create a new oil rush in the region, with five nations scrabbling across the ice to get at what lies beneath - and in the process doing who knows what kind of damage to the ecology of the ice cap.

Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway and Denmark all have claims on the Arctic. International law gives each nation control over an economic zone within 200 nautical miles of their "continental shelf", which is defined as the "submerged prolongation of the land territory of the continental state" - a definition that has produced amicable international agreements almost everywhere except the Arctic, where the geology of the ocean is fiercely disputed.

A few years ago, the United Nations set up a special body, the grandly-named Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, to adjudicate on these problems. They had hardly set themselves up in business before the Russians slapped in their claim for an area of the Arctic larger than France, Germany and Italy combined. This prompted the other interested nations to gang up on the Russians, whose claim remains unresolved.

What the Russians hope they can achieve through this week's expedition is to bring back the evidence they need to validate their claim. So last week, several dozens of the smartest living Russians converged on the far northern city of Murmansk - best known in this country as the place where British troops landed in 1918 in a futile attempt to intervene in the Russian Civil War. They included specialists in oceanic studies, marine geology, geophysics and Arctic research.

The party came to a total of 135, of whom 85 piled onto the Akademik Fyodorov, the diesel/electric-powered flagship of Russia's research fleet, while another 50 boarded the Rossiya, a nuclear-powered icebreaker. Eight helicopters flew overhead to monitor the ships' progress through ice that never melts.

The expedition's leader, Arthur Chilingarov, makes no bones that their mission is as much about politics as it is about science. Not content with presiding over something like a sixth of the world's land mass, President Vladimir Putin seemingly wants to be the first president of the Arctic. He considers the expedition to be "very important," his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said.

The Kremlin, he added, is well aware of the territorial implications of the research. "Besides being of scientific importance, of course we will wait and see the results of that expedition, whether they determine that the bottom is a continuation [of the Lomonosov Ridge]."

The miniature submarine that is being sent down to the ocean bed, two and a half miles below the ice, will deposit a titanium capsule containing the Russian flag, to plant their country's symbolic claim to the ocean floor.

It is a scientific challenge almost as great as the first flight to the moon. There is not just the stupendous pressure that the submarines will have to withstand at the bottom of the ocean. The most difficult part of all, Mr Chilingarov said before he left, will be steering it back up again to find the small hole in the millions of tonnes of ice overhead. "We face the most severe and risky task, to descend to the depths, to the seabed, in the harshest of oceans, where no one has been before and to stand in the centre of the ocean on our own feet. Humanity has long dreamt of this," he declared.

Mr Chilingarov has devoted most of his 68 years to studying the Arctic. He made headlines over 20 years ago when he braved ferocious weather to head a salvage operation on a ship that had become ice-bound, for which he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union. He is a politician as well as a scientist. In his youth, he was a Communist Party official, and is now a member of the Russian Parliament.

He set sail as President Vladimir Putin's personal representative in the Arctic. Before he left, he told the Russia media that the expedition would "identify the north border of Russia".

The basis of the Russian claim is the aforementioned Lomonosov Ridge, named after the renowned scientist, Mikhail Lomonosov, who was born on an island off the north coast of Russia almost 300 years ago. The existence of the ridge was uncovered by explorers in Stalin's day. It is like a vast underwater mountain plateau, about 100 miles wide and 1,240 miles long that zig zags through the ocean between Russia and Greenland, interrupted here and there by canyons and fissures. Above the ridge, the ocean is in places is just 3,000ft deep. Beyond the ridge, it is about 15,000ft from sea level to ocean bed.

If nothing else, the Lomonosov Ridge sounds as if it ought to be Russian. The Kremlin's view is that it is indeed Russia, under water. Last month, a party of Russian geologists returned from a six-week trip aboard an icebreaker with the "sensational" news that the Lomonosov ridge is, geologically speaking, attached to the Russian land mass. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda celebrated the discovery by publishing a map showing how Russia, which is already by a very long way the world's largest country, had expanded by 460,000 ice-bound square miles.

The expedition that left Murmansk a week ago has not got by without the occasional hitch. There were fears that the Akademik Fyodorov might not make it through the thick ice, even with a nuclear ice breaker leading the way. And, indeed, it had not gone far before its engines failed, and it was adrift in the Barents Sea. The crew sent out a distress signal to the accompanying submarine, which located the drifting ship at 2.00am on Thursday morning. By then, the Fyodorov's engines were working properly again, and they proceeded. There was then a frisson of excitement aboard ship when they discovered they were being tailed by an aircraft which was definitely not one of the Russian helicopters that was supposed to be following them. The Russians identified it as a Nato plane, from Norway.

By the weekend, the expedition had arrived safely at the far northern Franz Josef Land archipelago, where the two manned miniature submarines, Mir 1 and Mir 2 made test dives to the ocean floor. They reached a depth of about four-fifths of a mile, barely a third of the depth they need to reach at the North Pole, but at least the experiment proved for the first time that submersibles can be made to work properly under the ice cap.

If the more difficult dive at the North Pole succeeds, the submarine crew will join the pantheon of heroic Russian explorers such as the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin - but it will not settle the vexed question of who owns the ocean floor.

The Lomonosov Ridge is a bit like a huge submerged walkway from Russia to Greenland and Canada. Consequently, if Russia has a claim on the Arctic bed, so do the Danes, by virtue of their sovereignty over Greenland, as do the Canadians.

The Canadian government is under domestic pressure to put up a serious challenge to the Russians. Three years ago, the government set aside about £35m for the task of mapping the seabed, and Canadian scientists have been out making seismic studies of the Lomonosov Ridge. But Canada has only one ice breaker suitable for this sort of work, and needs at least one more. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, announced this month that the Canadian navy will acquire up to eight ice-strengthened patrol vessels, which will be useful for dealing with intruders close to home, but not be strong enough to make it through the ice to the North Pole.

The Danes are also seeking to stake their claim in the game, by virtue of their sovereignty over Greenland, and have joined up with the Canadians to explore the sea. Thorkild Meedom of Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation said: "We're going step by step and mapping as conditions permit."

Meanwhile, should the rest of the world care who wins this latest rush for oil? The view held by environmental groups is that oil companies have already wrecked the ecology of large parts of Alaska and Siberia, and it would be better all round if they all kept their hands off the undisturbed frozen beauty of the North Pole.

Even without oil companies trampling over it, the ice cap is already disappearing at an alarming speed. It was shrinking through the whole of the last century, a process that accelerated in the last decade as the world warmed up. Ship routes that used to be ice-bound almost the whole year round have now become more navigable. ,

"Any country rushing anywhere for oil at a time of global warming is being deeply irresponsible," Ben Stewart, of Greenpeace, said. "Aside from the issue that they might ruin the pristine environment of the Arctic, countries should be competing in a rush towards renewable energy, not in a rush for fossil fuels."