Russia plants flag to claim Arctic seabed riches

117.jpgA Russian expedition planted the country’s flag on the seabed under the North Pole on Thursday, capping a mission to claim the mineral riches of the Arctic and drawing ridicule from abroad.

“The Mir-1 submarine successfully reached the bottom of the Arctic Ocean… at a depth of 4,261 metres,” veteran Arctic explorer and expedition leader Artur Chilingarov told the Vesti television channel.

A Russian flag made of rust-proof titanium was deposited on the seabed as a symbol of Russia’s claims over a vast swathe of Arctic territory, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

The foreign minister of Canada, which has also talked up the need to defend the country’s interests in the Arctic, ridiculed the flag-planting by the Russian expedition.

“Look, this isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory’,” MacKay told Canadian broadcaster CTV.

Chilingarov, who is also a member of parliament, was joined by five others for the mission, including fellow parliamentarian Vladimir Gruzdev, Swedish pharmaceuticals tycoon Frederik Paulsen, and Michael McDowell, an Australian explorer.

The six explorers made the descent in two Mir mini-submarines.

The Mir-1 had to search for a hole in the ice for 40 minutes to resurface after spending eight hours and 40 minutes underwater and it was soon followed by the Mir-2, Russian media reported expedition officials as saying.

Billed as the first to reach the ocean floor under the North Pole, the expedition aims to establish that a section of seabed passing through the pole, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is in fact an extension of Russia’s landmass.

“We must determine the border. The most northerly border of the Russian shelf,” Chilingarov said in comments broadcast before the dive from the Akademik Fyodorov research ship leading the expedition.

Speaking during a trip to the Philippines on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped the expedition “would provide additional scientific evidence for our aspirations”, in comments broadcast on Vesti-24.

The voyage reflects growing international interest in the Arctic partly due to climate change, which is causing greater melting of the ice and making the area more accessible for research and economic activity.

The US Geological Survey, a US government agency, said in a report earlier that some 25 per cent of world oil reserves are believed to be located above the Arctic Circle.

In a speech on a nuclear icebreaker earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin urged greater efforts to secure Russia’s “strategic, economic, scientific and defence interests” in the region.

In 2001, Russia made a submission to a United Nations commission claiming subsea rights stretching to the pole. That claim was rejected and the current Russian expedition is looking for evidence to support a new application.

The expedition comes as several countries try to extend their rights over sections of the Arctic Ocean floor. Both Norway and Denmark are carrying out surveys to this end.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently called for measures to defend the country’s interests in the Arctic, including by boosting the number of icebreakers patrolling Canada’s waters.

US politicians, including Senator Richard Lugar, have urged defence of their country’s Arctic interests to stand up to Russian claims over large stretches of the seabed.

“Unless the United States ratifies the treaty, Moscow will be able to press its claims without an American at the table,” Lugar said in May, referring to the Law of the Sea treaty, a complex agreement on territorial sovereignty.

Russian media reported a US expedition that set off from Norway on July 1 to study another part of the Arctic seabed, the Gakkel Ridge, was part of a race between Moscow and Washington for the Arctic’s mineral riches.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which was organising the voyage, said in an e-mail to AFP that the “expedition is in search of hydrothermal vents and new biological life”.

On Thursday, a second Russian expedition was to be launched from the northern port of Arkhangelsk for a 100-day research mission to Russia’s Arctic seas, the Arctic and Antarctic Institute in Saint Petersburg said.

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