July 26, 2007
Expedition to Stake Arctic Claim Delayed
MOSCOW -- An ambitious Russian naval expedition that set off for the North Pole to explore the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and stake Moscow's claim to oil and natural gas riches under the seabed ground to a sudden halt Wednesday when a ship broke down.
The research ship Akademik Fyodorov suffered engine failure a day after it sailed from the northern port of Murmansk and was drifting in the Barents Sea about 60 nautical miles from the shore, state-run Rossiya television reported.
The Rossiya nuclear-powered icebreaker, which was leading the expedition, turned back to help and was expected to reach the stricken vessel Thursday.
"We are heading back to Akademik Fyodorov to give it technical assistance," expedition leader Russian lawmaker Artur Chilingarov, who is on board the icebreaker, said in televised remarks.
Another assistance team was sent from Murmansk, Rossiya reported. It was not immediately clear how long it would take to fix the problem.
The engine failure dealt a blow to the mission, which is aimed at finding evidence that the seabed is geographically linked to Russia and thus part of its territory.
"The Arctic is Russian," Chilingarov, a member of parliament and Russia's most famous explorer, told state-controlled NTV before setting sail. "We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf."
Two mini-submarines were expected to be launched from Akademik Fyodorov on Sunday to confirm the work of an earlier Russian expedition, which said it found the link between the Eurasian continent and the underwater Lomonosov Ridge that runs across the North Pole.
Russian scientists have long maintained that Moscow has a right to the mineral riches beneath a chunk of the Arctic seabed the size of Germany, France and Italy combined. The region is estimated to contain up to 10 billion cubic meters of hydrocarbons, along with diamonds and metal ores.
Under international law, the five Arctic countries - Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark (through Greenland) - control an economic zone within 200 miles of their continental shelf. But the definition of the limits of that shelf are in dispute.
Russia first laid claim to wide swaths of undersea Arctic territory in 2001. But the four other polar countries objected. Danish scientists maintain the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of Greenland, making Denmark another claimant to the North Pole and its environs.
Dividing the undersea land is difficult and controversial. The Russian expedition may take samples of the seabed to bolster its claims.
Russia, which has enormous energy resources, has aspired to restore its clout as a global power under President Vladimir Putin.
Environmentalists say global warming is opening up the Arctic to new economic pressures, as receding ice exposes new areas of ocean and tundra to exploration and ice-free zones result in shorter shipping lanes.
After reaching the sea floor under the North Pole, Russia's mini-subs will leave a titanium capsule containing the Russian flag, said Anatoly Sagalevich, the subs' designer. The subs will also collect specimens of Arctic flora and fauna and videotape the dives, which will be broadcast live via a satellite, he told NTV.
"Russian submarines will be the first to travel along the ocean floor under the North Pole," he said, although Russian, U.S. and other military submarines have routinely operated in the Arctic for decades.
The Soviet Union had extensive Arctic and Antarctic research and exploration programs, and Soviet polar explorers were showered with accolades and hailed as national heroes. Those programs shrank dramatically in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This week's polar cruise is part of the recent revival of Russian polar programs.