The place where two Russian explorers hoped to make history and dramatically seize the attention of the outside world was bleak yet utterly compelling. As far as every distant horizon they could see only a frozen, barren landscape that seemed to glow brilliantly beneath the bright sun and the pale blue sky. Nowhere in this icy wasteland was there any form of life or movement, and the silence and sense of isolation were total and overpowering (Map 2).
On that chilled morning of 2 August 2007, as they readied themselves for the journey that lay ahead, the explorers were far too busy to pay much attention to their surroundings. Their mission promised to be difficult, demanding and sometimes dangerous, and even getting this far had not been an easy task. They had arrived after several days of journeying on board a research vessel, Akademik Fyodorov, and a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker, the Rossiya, which had smashed a hole through the thick ice below. On board were two miniature submarines, Mir 1 and Mir 2, both of which had been safely lowered and were now ready to be launched. The task for the two men was to descend to the ocean floor that lay nearly 14,000 feet beneath them.
This would be no simple feat. In such extreme temperatures, machinery freezes and vital instruments malfunction, and making their way back to the surface would be even more difficult because of the moving ice floes. If they failed to find the exact spot where they had started then the submarines would be unable to break the ice above them and the crew would face a slow, agonizing death as their air supply slowly ran out.
But the team was ideally qualified to undertake such a hazardous mission. The Captain of Mir 1, Anatoly Sagalevich, was a 69-year-old veteran of numerous operations in these tiny vessels. In earlier years he had personally led difficult operations to the ocean's depths to inspect the ghostly underwater graves of sunken ships such as the
Bismarck and Titanic. As a departmental head at Moscow's prestigious Institute of Oceanology, he had built up an intricate knowledge of both his vessel and the Arctic's environment, particularly the geology that lay far beneath them.
In the cockpit of Mir 2 was another distinguished figure whose name was familiar to millions of ordinary Russians. For 68-year-old Artur Chilingarov was not only a deputy chairman in Russia's national Parliament, but also an outstanding polar scientist with a long and impeccable record of exploration and research. Over 20 years before he had been proclaimed as a Hero of the Soviet Union - his country's highest honour - in recognition of the exceptional talents he had shown during a number of expeditions to the South Pole and elsewhere.
Soon the two men were ready to move, and slowly their vessels sank down into the water beneath. From their cockpits they looked up and saw the daylight shine through the ice circle above them until it gradually faded from view and then disappeared altogether. Now, after so much preparation, they started their long journey to the seabed, carefully mapping their path so they could retrace their steps.
Finally, after nearly 4 hours, sonar devices told them that they had, at last, reached the seabed. Sagalevich guided a specially built robotic arm, attached to his vessel's exterior, to collect samples of soil and rocks from the dark waters around them. But this was not the main purpose of the mission. With real skill the veteran explorer now used the exterior arm to plant a Russian flag on the seabed, at a depth of exactly 13,980 feet, in a ceremonial display that he was keen to photograph. Forged from titanium to stave off rust, and anchored by a heavy weight, the flag had been specially made for this great occasion. As Sagalevich wrote proudly in his log shortly afterwards, 'we set the flag of the Russian Federation on the floor of the Arctic Ocean'. The months of preparation had finally paid off.
Back at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, large crowds had gathered, brandishing enormous bottles of champagne and huge national flags, to welcome home the men and women of the Arctic 2007 expedition and fete them as true Russian heroes. As they stepped onto the red carpet and a brass band played, both Sagalevich and Chilingarov prepared to make deeply patriotic statements about their achievement. 'Russia is a great polar empire', Chilingarov exclaimed, adding that this was a victory for every one of his fellow nationals: 'I congratulate all the Russians on reaching the North Pole of the Earth!' Other Russians spoke in equally ecstatic terms. 'This may sound grandiloquent, but for me this is like placing a flag on the moon; this is really a massive scientific achievement', as Sergei Balyasnikov, a spokesman for the Arctic and Antarctic Institute in Moscow, told one international news agency. 'It was the first ever dive of manned vehicles under the Arctic ice. We now know that we can perform this task.'
But unlike the space race of the post-war years, or earlier trips to the North and South Pole, this journey had been more than personal achievement and national prestige. The explorers, and their supporters and unofficial sponsors in the Kremlin, did not just want to be seen to be keeping pace with, or get one step ahead of, any international rival. It was, instead, part of a carefully planned operation to assert Russia's claim over part of a region that seemed to belong to no one. This was why President Vladimir Putin had already described the urgent need for Russia to secure its 'strategic, economic, scientific and defence interests' in the Arctic, and why Chilingarov, a close confidant of the Russian president, has also declared that 'the Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence'.
The Arctic 2007 expedition was playing an important part in this great game for the Arctic in two distinct ways. On the one hand, the explorers had taken some geological samples from the seabed that they hoped would provide convincing evidence that the region does, after all, belong to Russia. Under international law, Russia, like any other coastal state, has exclusive economic rights over any natural resources found in a zone that extends up to 200 miles from its shores.1 But it can claim even more if it demonstrates that the 'natural prolongation' of its submerged land mass - its continental shelf - extends beyond that 200-mile limit. In this situation, it can stake a claim over any resources found within that wider area, one that might cover an extra distance of up to 150 miles (Map 1).2 This area that lies beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone is known as the 'outer continental shelf' (OCS).
The crucial treaty on this issue and on many other aspects of international law is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. First drawn up in December 1982, after years of negotiations involving numerous countries, this extensive agreement seeks to cover almost every aspect of how the seas are governed and used, even though its provisions are often opaque and incomplete. Over the intervening years, this 'Constitution of the Oceans', once heralded by a UN Secretary-General as 'possibly the most significant legal instrument of this century', has been ratified by 158 states, although the single most important player in global politics, the United States, had still not signed up by the summer of 2009.3
The 1982 Convention attaches a great deal of importance to the question of how far any piece of land stretches out to sea. Usually a land mass reaches out into the ocean until it drops, often quite sharply, into the much deeper waters of the continental margin. In many cases, this happens quite close to the shores of the coastal state, which is nonetheless still entitled to have a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. But if there is a sudden, discernible drop beyond the 200-mile border, then the coastal country can claim to have an outer continental shelf. Of all the countries that have signed up to the 1982 Convention, perhaps as many as 70 might have this extended shelf, although they need to provide compelling geological evidence of this.4
In the Arctic, a great deal of argument revolves around the structure of a massive underwater formation - a submerged mountain range - known as the Lomonosov Ridge. The key question is whether it merges with any country's continental shelf. If it does, then those sections of shelf, instead of dropping suddenly when they reach the continental margin, would stretch far out to sea, reaching well beyond the limits of their respective state's 200-mile zone and in all likelihood well beyond the maximum 350-mile limit.
For some years the Russians have been adamant that their own continental shelf merges with both the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges. This would mean that they could claim economic rights over a much greater area, one that starts at their existing territories in Franz Josef Land, a remote collection of islands in the far north-east of the Barents Sea, and reaches right up as far as the North Pole. It is doubtful that the efforts of Chilingarov and Sagalevich really helped Russia to prove it - some scientists pointed out that the explorers did little besides take photographs and gathered no meaningful geological evidence - but this was at least the ostensible purpose of their trip.5
Of course Moscow has certainly never claimed that this gives them sovereignty over more than a very limited share of the Arctic Ocean.6 To claim any more than a section of such a vast and diverse area would plainly be absurd, for it covers more than 5.4 million square miles and touches the shorelines of four other countries: the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark, which has claimed Greenland as its own sovereign territory for nearly two centuries. Nor does Russia claim that its continental shelf bestows any special rights over the wider Arctic region, which incorporates not just the Arctic Ocean but much more besides: this wider region covers just over 8 million square miles, comprising around 6 per cent of the earth's surface, and impinges upon the territory of another three countries:
Sweden, Finland and Iceland. And it is home to around four million people, about one-third of whom are indigenous and around half are Russian nationals.
Instead, the Kremlin is seeking to stake its claim over a slice of territory that runs north of its existing borders and into the frozen wasteland that lies above the Arctic. Large parts of this region, the 'High North', have always been a true no man's land, or rather a no man's frozen sea, an area of permanent pack ice that no man has ever bothered to claim as his own, or even shown much interest in, until very recently.
But the difficult issue for the Russians, and for any other country, is to prove it. Again, the 1982 Convention states that a government has to plead its case before a specially designated United Nations body, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Several years before, in December 2001, Moscow had done just that.7 Six months later, however, the Kremlin had found its advances spurned by the Commission, whose members asked for further data that would make the Russian case more compelling. It was just such geological evidence that the two Russian explorers had been tasked with finding on the ocean floor.
Other members of the 'Arctic Five'* are trying just as hard to show that this ridge, and other underground formations, give them their own maritime rights. The Canadian government argues that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the North American land mass and its determination to prove the point became clear in November 2008, when it commissioned two mini submarines that, soon after their planned launch in 2011, will be sent on a series of long-range missions north and west of Ellesmere Island to gather the necessary geological evidence to support the government's case. Canadian scientists hope to soon find what they want, and were encouraged when in late 2008 a joint United States-Canadian mapping mission to the Beaufort Sea produced better than expected results. 'The quality of the data is astonishing', as a Halifax-based scientist told the media. 'We haven't analysed it all, but what we found is that the entire Beaufort Sea - all the way up to the north - is covered with significant amounts of sediments, which makes our case look very promising.'8
Some other countries, including Norway, Denmark, Iceland and the United States, have also either pitched their respective claims to an outer continental shelf that reaches beyond the standard 200-mile limit, or look ready to do so. The Danish government is spending
* The 'Arctic Five' are Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark.
huge sums of money preparing a comprehensive map that it claims will demonstrate that the Lomonosov Ridge runs from the top of Greenland all the way to the North Pole. Oslo is also holding high hopes that the UN Commission will look favourably on its claim for ownership of areas in the Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean that cover 100,000 square miles. It submitted its own case to the UN in November 2006, exactly 10 years after signing up to the 1982 Convention and just within the deadline that the treaty demands.9
But there was also another, more emotive, reason for the Arctic mission. In a matter of mere hours, dramatic pictures of the Russian flag being lodged onto the Arctic seabed had been broadcast around the world, suddenly focusing attention on a region that not many people knew much about. This was exactly what the leaders in the Kremlin had hoped for: the Arctic 2007 expedition was all about expressing and symbolizing Russia's claim to the region, as well as its resurgent national confidence, before the watching world. 'If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag', as Chilingarov told one Russian news agency.
Of course planting a flag in any part of the world doesn't give any country a right to rule it. As a spokesman in the US State Department, Tom Casey, pointed out, 'I'm not sure whether they put a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bedsheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn't have any legal standing'. Any such 'rights' depend on international law, and although many countries openly flout it, most are reluctant to overtly do so for fear of sanctions, military conflict or, in some cases, frightening off foreign investors. No one is quite sure who owns large parts of the Arctic, but it was certain that the flag ceremony did not bestow any special right on Moscow. It did, however, seem to be symbolic of some people's worst fears about the Russians: that they would hold few scruples about seizing much of the Arctic for themselves.
This was why the footage provoked a powerful international reaction, particularly from those who were closest to hand. To the Canadians it seemed threatening, reminiscent of a bygone imperial age when great powers simply seized land by force and then planted a flag to claim it as their own. Foreign Minister, Peter Mackay, vigorously protested that 'this isn't the fifteenth century. You can't go around the world and plant flags', while the European Union's Energy Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, later stated simply that he was 'not at ease with developments in the Arctic' and that 'countries that are bordering the Arctic should be extremely serious about not making conflictual announcements, because whatever solution is found, it should be between all the countries bordering it'.10 Newspapers across the world echoed the same message, condemning Moscow's 'stunt' as a sign of its 'Czarist impulses' and claiming that it was just a 'Kremlin-sponsored act of bravado aimed at boosting national pride'.
Back in Moscow, there was little sign of remorse as international tension suddenly heightened. 'We are happy that we placed a Russian flag on the ocean bed, where not a single person has ever been, and I don't give a damn what some foreign individuals think about that', claimed Artur Chilingarov. Making a reference to an expedition led by a Soviet Arctic researcher, Ivan Papanin, on a drifting ice floe in the winter of 1937, he claimed that 'Russia [has] always expanded its territory by northern lands' and that 'seventy years ago, they would say, "Bolsheviks have conquered the Arctic". Now our crew is United Russia. The Russian flag is the point of the North Pole of the Earth. Full stop. If someone doesn't like it, let them dive as deep as 14,000 feet and try and leave something down there'. A short distance away from where he was speaking, some youths from the pro-Kremlin Young Guard movement were showing even less remorse. 'Who has shown the planet what is what?' they chanted, 'it's our Arctic explorer Chilingarov! The Russian people are in the Arctic now!'
Superficially, it is of course surprising that the Arctic should arouse so much attention and interest. Yet, as other parts of the world prove, most obviously the Middle East, some of the world's harshest and most difficult environments can also harbour great natural wealth.
The heart of the issue is climate change. Although local temperatures have always ebbed and flowed, the climatic variations in the region over the past quarter century are far more dramatic than anything it is known to have previously witnessed. Over the past six decades average winter temperatures in western Canada and Alaska have increased by as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit, and as temperatures rise, so too does the speed with which the Arctic ice is melting.
Of course, the Arctic Ocean has never been completely frozen over, because the constant movement (the fracturing and melting of its vast ice packs) often creates open waters. Even then, there are considerable seasonal fluctuations. In September and October, after months of summer sun, the ice packs are confined mostly to the ocean's northern-most regions, and only a small amount floats into some of the constituent waters, such as the Greenland, Kara and Barents Seas and the Canadian archipelago, that lie further south. In February and
March, however, a great deal of ice is usually found in all of these areas, as well as in peripheral waters, such as the Bering Sea, Hudson Bay, the Sea of Okhotsk and Baffin Bay (Map 2).
What has happened in recent years is a drastic alteration of this pattern. Around 41 per cent of permanent ice is estimated to have already completely disappeared from the region over the last quarter century, and every year a further million square miles or so vanishes, shrinking the ice cap to around half of the size it covered in the mid-twentieth century. Data provided by NASA satellites shows that in 1979, perennial sea ice covered an area twice the size of the United States. Twenty-five years later, however, an area equivalent to New York, Georgia and Texas had completely vanished, mostly from the Beaufort, Chukchi, Siberian and Laptev Seas.
The implications of this rapid and drastic climate change are, of course, vast, affecting everyone in the region and many more beyond, in some way or another. This is the subject of numerous specialist studies, most notably a huge research document, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, published in 2004. This extensive study has argued that a great many people will inevitably lose out from these changes: 'the reduction in sea ice is very likely to have devastating consequences for polar bears, ice-dependent seals, and local people for whom the animals are a primary food source'. But it adds there could also be some benefits too, including the opening of job opportunities for local people and, from an environmental point of view, 'increased areas of tree growth in the Arctic [that] could serve to take up carbon dioxide and supply more wood products and related employment'.11
For many governments - not just those whose own territory extends beyond the Arctic Circle - what matters most, at least for the moment, are the region's natural resources and their accessibility to them. Above all, many experts have long been convinced that the Arctic Ocean has resources on a vast scale and recognized that the gradual thaw of its ice is now making them accessible for the first time. A leading American organization, for example, estimates that the region might even hold as much as 13 per cent of the world's remaining deposits of oil and 30 per cent of its gas, while traces of numerous precious metals, including gold, platinum and iron ore, have also been found.12
Such revelations have become even more important because by the time that Chilignarov and Sagalevich made their underwater expedition, fears were mounting that the world's natural resources - its supply of oil in particular - were beginning to run out. The market price of crude oil started to climb considerably in early
2004, allowing producers to reap vast earnings. It was a tempting reminder that whoever could claim the Arctic's resources would have an increasingly precious commodity on their hands.
The likely presence of so many natural resources is a vastly more important consideration than any prospect of international shipping routes that might one day traverse the Arctic's waters. In recent years, there have been media reports of two such sea lanes. One of these runs through the Northwest Passage, a series of distinct but connected straits that stretch along the Canadian and Alaskan shores and link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The other is Russia's Northern Sea Route, which runs along across the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi Seas, through the Bering Straits and then into the northern Pacific (Map 2). Both, it is sometimes said, would create a shorter link between east and west than the Suez and Panama Canals currently offer, and the opening of these new commercial 'highways' would drastically reduce sailing times and slash shipping costs. But many of these reports have been exaggerated; although these trade routes will certainly become more navigable during the summer months, they are most unlikely to become ice-free all year round. As a result, sailing times will remain uncertain and tight schedules could be easily disrupted.
However, in the context of oil, gas and other natural resources the full importance of the outer continental shelf, in the Arctic in particular but also throughout the wider world, becomes clear. A very high proportion of the world's oil and natural gas is estimated to lie offshore and now that the technology to develop these reserves has been developed, coastal states the world over have a greater interest than ever before in demonstrating that they have an outer continental shelf. The economic future of some of the world's developing countries, such as Barbados, Tonga and Palau, could even hinge on this single issue.
No one is quite sure, however, who rules large parts of this region, which has only recently assumed so much importance. There are all sorts of competing claims here, all of which have long been ignored or downplayed, but which are now the focus of intense scrutiny from governments, lawyers, explorers, geologists and military men.
Of course, the same could be said about other regions whose fate has nonetheless been resolved amicably. Disputes over the Antarctic were temporarily settled in 1959 when representatives of 12 countries, including the two superpowers as well as important players on the international stage, such as France, Japan and the United Kingdom, met in Washington to negotiate and sign an agreement to determine the region's future. Under the terms of the deal, each signatory state agreed not to 'recognize, dispute or establish territorial sovereignty claims' to the region for the next 50 years.13 This was because 'Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord'. As a result, the signatories decided that 'any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, as well as the testing of any type of weapon' should be prohibited.14 Since it came into effect in June 1961, a further 38 countries have signed and ratified its provisions.
Unfortunately this is not a helpful analogy. This is not because of the geographical differences between them - many of the Arctic's disputed regions are seas, whereas Antarctica is a land mass - but for another reason. The 1959 treaty has proved enduring essentially because oil and natural gas were discovered in Antarctica only long after it was signed. Since the nineteenth century it had been regarded as a lucrative source of whale and seal stocks, but petroleum was found only in the early 1980s. Now that the technology to exploit these resources has been developed, it is possible that the agreement might break down. In any event, the southern region does not have the Arctic's superb strategic setting.
It is tempting to view the Arctic as the likely setting of a scenario that has become much discussed in recent years and continues to be much feared: the scenario of brutal, bitter and bloody confrontation waged between rival international powers that are desperate to acquire the world's diminishing supply of natural resources. From this viewpoint the provocative journey of Chilingarov and Sagalevich appears, if not quite an opening round, a premonition of the trouble that lies ahead. However, the central argument of this book is that this scenario is even less likely to happen in the Arctic than elsewhere, but there are other dangers that soon could become very real.
Part 1 The Setting
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