By Dan Oancea
These were the words used by Commander William R. Anderson at 11:15 pm on August 3, 1958 when he announced the crew of the first American nuclear powered submarine that an important milestone had been reached: the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship.
Timing was right to boost America’s morale. On October 4, 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik - the first manmade spacecraft to orbit the Earth - but they had no nuclear submarine of their own.
The only other submarine that has ever claimed to have reached the top of the world was Jules Verne’s Nautilus submarine in his 1870 ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ story.
On August 2, 2007, almost 50 years after the inaugural Nautilus journey the Russian Arktika 2007 expedition sent two manned MIR submarines to collect samples at the North Pole from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. Nothing unusual there if it weren’t for the fact that the crews planted Russian flags on virgin underwater ground in what many saw as an attempt to claim it as their own.
Swift public reactions followed from countries that have Arctic claims and interests.
The Americans said that the act of planting a flag does not bear any legal significance. They knew what they were talking about: Some 40 years earlier an American flag was planted on the Moon in the first manned mission to land on that planet. And they never claimed the Moon for themselves.
Canadians lost their proverbial patience and launched in a more virulent attack by saying that "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'."
The Russians replied that they were not staking claims per se, but they were ‘scientifically’ proving that the enigmatic underwater geological structure that spans the North Pole, the Lomonosov Ridge, represents nothing else than an extension of their continental shelf. That translates in them considering it as an integral part of their new and ambitious Russia, a country that tries to reassert itself as one of the world’s super powers.
The battle for the Arctic is a battle for oil and gas resources, fish stocks, minerals and political and military dominance. For the minerals part, everybody knows about rich diamond, gold and uranium mines that riddle the Arctic and sub-Arctic landscape. But that is not all that exists there.
Deep-sea mining was to no interest to anyone because of low metal prices even though in 1978 Inco lifted on-board some 800 tonnes of polymetallic nodules from a depth of almost 5,500 m. Since then, underwater mining has been successfully carried out for diamonds by De Beers and a few other smaller companies.
The breakthrough in public perception came from the listing of Nautilus Minerals Inc., the first company ever to plan to mine the underwater polymetallic fossil black smoker structures of Papua New Guinea. If underwater mining proves to be feasible, a whole new range of possibilities opens up for countries laying claims to continental shelf extensions in the Arctic.
On May 28, 2008, five Arctic circumpolar nations held a political meeting in Iluissat, Greenland. Participants were invited to orderly settle any overlapping claims that they might have over any Arctic territory – land or ocean.
Their conflicting claims are supposed to be decided upon by 2020 by a United Nations panel. The International Seabed Authority is the international organization in charge of regulating undersea mining.
Considering that water covers some 70% of the Earth’s surface and we know less about our oceans than about the Moon or Mars, it seems logical that Arctic geological, bathymetric and oceanographic surveys will be carried out at an increasing rate during the years to come. Flexing their muscles, some of the nations have already started to increase their military presence in the Arctic. And they didn’t make it a secret.
In July 2008, British scientists of the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU) at Durham University published a new Arctic map. The map highlights the status of the Arctic claims and the increasing potential for conflict over the world’s last frontier.
A copy of the Arctic maritime boundaries and jurisdictions can be downloaded from the IBRU’s site.