Two Russian vessels have reached the North Pole and will attempt to plant a Russian flag on the Arctic seafloor as part of a scientific expedition, according to the government-owned ITAR-TASS news agency.
The stunt is part of an ambitious Russian plan to claim a large swath of the Arctic believed to contain vast reserves of untapped oil and gas deposits at a time when global oil use is rising swiftly and scientists predict oil production could peak as early as next year.
According to ITAR-TASS, the icebreaker Rossiya and the scientific vessel Akademik Fyodorov reached the North Pole on Wednesday, Aug. 1, after a week-long voyage.
An ambitious claim
Polar explorer and Russian parliament member Artur Chilingarov heads a team of about 100 scientists on the expedition designed to find evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge—a 1,200-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region—is a geologic extension of Russia.
Just prior to reaching their polar destination, Russian researchers used two mini-submarines to dive to a depth of 4,300 feet (1,300 meters). The dives "were only a dress rehearsal before diving at the North Pole, where depths are over four kilometers (2.5 miles)," Chilingarov told ITAR-TASS.
Chilingarov and fellow parliament member Vladimir Grudez will later attempt to dive in one of the mini-subs to more than 13,200 feet (4,023 meters), where they will drop a titanium tube containing the Russian flag on the sea floor.
The gesture will symbolize Russia's claim to a large chunk of the Arctic shelf twice the area of Britain and estimated to contain up to 10 billion tons of oil and gas deposits, as well as vast reserves of diamonds and valuable metals such as gold, tin and platinum.
Under current international law, Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark—the countries with territories ringing the Arctic—are limited to a 200-mile economic zone around their coastlines.
In May, Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed that the Lomonosov Ridge is a geologic extension of Siberia and can therefore be claimed by Russia under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Ironically, the North Pole is already drifting towards Siberia, albeit in a very slow, geologic way.
A similar bid by Russia for land beyond its 200-mile zone was rejected five years ago. But Russian scientists now say they have photographic evidence to back up Putin's claim.
Other countries are protesting Russia's claim. Denmark, for example, claims the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of its territories via Greenland.
Lots of potential
If any country can claim the Arctic, it would also own what could prove to be a very valuable shipping lane in the near future. The North Pole has changed during the last century due to global warming, and scientists predict the region could be ice-free during summer by as soon as 2040.
An ice-free Arctic would mean access to new commercial fishing spots and a much more navigable Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific for ships that could potentially shorten sea voyages between Europe and Asia by up to 2,000 nautical miles, compared to current trade routes through the Panama Canal.
In addition to the flag-dropping stunt, the Akademik Fyodorov scientists will also attempt to collect samples of marine creatures living in the Arctic depths. If successful, the Russian submarine dive will be the first ever manned descent to the North Pole's ocean bottom.
History of exploration
American Navy engineer Robert Edwin Peary claimed to be the first to reach the geographic North Pole in 1909, but his achievement is disputed because no one in his party was trained in navigation to independently confirm Peary's calculations.
The first landing at the North Pole was a Soviet party that landed a plane nearby and walked to the pole in 1948, according to the Scott Polar Research Institute.
Two U.S. Navy submarines reached the North Pole in 1958 and 1959, respectively. The first passed under the pole, and the second became the first vessel to surface there.
Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the geographic South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911. Amundsen is also credited with the first undisputed sighting of the North Pole from an airship, in 1926.
LiveScience's Andrea Thompson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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