Earlier this month a Russian expedition to the North Pole planted a Russian flag on the Arctic Ocean floor. In Focus, VOA's André de Nesnera looks at the Russian feat and discusses the Law of the Sea that governs the earth's oceans.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is a comprehensive document that sets rules for the use of the world's oceans.
Michael Byers, Law of the Sea expert at the University of British Columbia [Liu Institute for Global Issues], says the treaty has specific guidelines concerning the Arctic Ocean.
"The section that is of relevance with regards to the Arctic Ocean, and more specifically to the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, specifies that coastal countries can claim continental shelves that extend beyond their exclusive economic zones - beyond 200 nautical miles (320 kilometers) from shore - if they can establish that the seabed under the open ocean is a natural prolongation of their own continental shelf."
Five countries surround the Artic Ocean and the North Pole: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, which owns Greenland.
On August 2, a Russian expedition to the North Pole, using two Mir mini-submarines, descended more than 4,000 meters and planted a Russian flag on the seabed of the Artic Ocean just below the pole.
Joe MacInnis, a Canadian scientist and deep-sea explorer, says from the technological standpoint, the Russian descent is an amazing feat. He remembers his own dives in the Mirs, the first in 1989.
"It's very much like having three people inside the front seat of a compact car surrounded by dials, gauges and circuit-breakers," recalls MacInnis. "It's very compact, [with] three portholes that you look out - a central porthole used by the pilot nd two side portholes used by the two observers that go down inside the sub.”
“The guys I've worked with on the Mirs are the best in the world at what they do. These pilots and technicians are really extraordinary," adds MacInnis. "There are only five extreme-depth subs in the world. The Russians have the two Mirs, the Japanese have one, the Americans have one and, of course, the French have the Nautile. So this is an outstanding crew."
Scientifically Successfull, Legally Pointless
While heralding the expedition as a scientific success, many experts say from the legal standpoint, the planting of a Russian flag on the Arctic Ocean floor means nothing.
Peter Mackay, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, in an interview with Canadian television, dismissed Russia's action. "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'we're claiming this territory'," he notes.
U.S. State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, echoed that view. "I'm not sure whether they've put a metal flag, a rubber flag, or a bed sheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn't have any legal standing," says Casey.
Canadian deep-sea explorer Joe MacInnis says the latest Russian expedition reminds him of his scientific trip in the mid 1970s. "In 1974, I took a small team of scientists, and we made the first science dives at the North Pole and planted a flag under the ice - a Canadian flag - and in spite of having a little bit of rum with us, did not claim any sovereignty."
Analysts say in addition to planting a flag, the Russian expedition also gathered material on the ocean floor to bolster Moscow's claim to the Arctic Ocean seabed that goes beyond the 200 nautical mile (320 kilometer) limit set by the Law of the Sea.
Vast Natural Resources
Lindsay Parson from the National Oceanography Center in Southampton, England, says that was the main reason for Moscow's latest expedition into the Arctic.
"It's beyond that area, and it's beyond that area that in fact the North Pole lies - but its beyond that 200 [nautical] mile limit that a particular article in the Convention on the Law of the Sea - that's Article 76 - allows for coastal states, if there is the right conditions on the sea floor, the right shape of the sea floor, the right geology, the right make-up of the sea floor, they can extend their continental shelves beyond 200 nautical miles and out into the high seas, which is beyond 200 nautical miles," explains Parson.
He says in 2001, Moscow gathered scientific data and submitted a claim to extend its continental shelf to the special U.N. Commission made up of 21 scientists. "But it was decided by the commission that the Russians had not, at that time, supported their case with enough geological, geophysical data. So they basically said: 'Look, guys. It's an interesting case, but you have to go away and collect some more data and return and resubmit with a more strengthened case.'"
Since then, Russian scientists have been gathering data and Parson expects Moscow to submit an updated claim in the near future. In the meantime, other Arctic nations are also gathering scientific information to bolster their claims to extend their continental shelves.
At stake are vast gas and oil reserves. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves could lie under the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
Canadian deep-sea explorer Joe MacInnis says it would be a huge undertaking to extract those deposits. He worked in the North Sea and in the Gulf of Mexico. “These are not easy bodies of water, but the Arctic Ocean is in a class all by itself," notes MacInnis. "So the concept of trying to get oil and gas from underneath that massive moving ice cap is staggering beyond belief. And if things went wrong, the damage to the Arctic eco-system from a major oil spill would be enormous. And so - it's a head-scratcher to me."
Experts also say operating in remote and ice covered regions is very expensive, but if the price of oil and gas continues to go up, analysts say the temptation to drill in the Arctic might become irresistible.