Polar expedition follow-up

From washingtonpost.com - Ntv Television Image Via Associated PressPresident Putin praised the Russian polar expedition as it returned to Moscow yesterday having succeeded in both collecting scientific samples and symbolically placing a Russian flag and other memorabilia on the ocean floor, a mission steeped in geopolitical maneuvering that I wrote about last week.

The Washington Post has an article touching on effect the expedition has on other nations attempting to lay claim to territory around the North Pole — and the resources that are becoming more accessible there. Russia’s actions have caused increased posturing from Canadian politicians seeking to bolster the country’s northern presence:

In the view of opposition leader Jack Layton, head of the New Democratic Party, the government has responded with little more than rhetoric to threats to Canadian sovereignty in its frozen backyard. “Canada must move quickly and make immediate, strategic investments in its Arctic,” Layton said Sunday.

True enough, the Kremlin-backed polar expedition has “generated a new source of international tension, seemingly out of the blue,” which is ironic since the vast majority of previous polar scientific missions had been accomplished with key international cooperation.

An email from Kathy Crane of the NOAA in today’s Johnson’s Russia List highlights some of the key past and future examples of cooperation between Russian and Western researchers.

What caught my attention was the tendency of the media to pit one country against another. This reality is different.

During the International Polar Year, many nations will be working together in the Arctic. A notable program will be RUSALCA 2008 (Russian-American Longterm Census of the Arctic) where scientists from many Russian institutions and agencies will join with scientists from many U.S. institutions and agencies to carry out exploration and monitoring of Climate Change in the waters shared by our two countries. There are also plans to incorporate the participation of China, Korea and Canada into a larger program.

It is clear that our future as an Arctic nation lies in collaboration with our neighbors, not in extreme nationalism, for no man lives alone on this planet.

She also notes how the planting of a nation’s flag on the bottom of the ocean floor is a rather meaningless gesture:

Flags have been planted all over the Arctic seafloor… It seems to be something that people like to do…. like climbing Mt. Everest.

For example, one multinational expedition to the Canada Basin in 2002 (partly NOAA funded) left behind the flags of Canada, U.S. China and Japan.. also in international waters. If Russia had been with us on the ship, we would have put that flag down as well.

And while she praises the technical accomplishments of the expedition, she goes on to say that the actual sampling that was accomplished will not be sufficient to back up a Russian claim of territorial continuity:

All marine geologists and international law specialists know that just visiting the seafloor in one small location will not provide enough information to actually go out and claim the territory. The MIRs are actually great submersibles, and provide platforms for a multitude of ocean floor experiments. However, the information needed for an UNCLOS submission, requires seismic exploration to determine the nature of the subjacent crust, the sediment thickness, in addition to high resolution bathymetric data. This information cannot be obtained during a submersible dive.

Pavel Baev at the EDM goes into more of the repercussions of the trip in terms of the oil and gas resources up for grabs, emphasizing Russia’s current lack of investment into hydrocarbon development, and its preference to sit on the major resources it controls:

The hidden feature that might prove to be the most significant in this context is Russia’s proven — but still astounding lack of interest in developing — natural resources. The super-monopoly Gazprom is the main culprit behind this phenomenon, and it has recently announced a reduction of its investment program for 2007-2008, first of all in the new projects such as the Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 24).

This reticence for major investment (very likely stemming from the rather large debts that both Gazprom and Rosneft are facing — an issue I hope to write about soon), combined with a lack of technical ability for undertaking any sort of development in the harsh polar conditions suggests that even if Russia gained control of the region, any extraction of the resources there is a long ways off (and could likely be undertaken by outside firms on the Kremlin’s terms).

On the lighter side of the issue, the JRL has an article from the Moscow Times on the “Top 10 Reasons to go to the North Pole if you are a Russian Leader.” Number 10 touches on the point above:

10) If you don’t have the technology to exploit the Shtokman deposits, claiming another large, ice-bound hydrocarbon source will help you learn.

A couple are pretty funny, in an ironic it-could-almost-actually-happen, way:

8 ) If the Russians do not claim the North Pole, Hugo Chavez might beat them to it.

2) Russia’s leaders are determined to diversify the Russian economy and build an information society. Increasing the country’s supply of natural resources is the first step in this process.

One last note–receiving far less press is a recent British-led expedition to the North Pole which should also be commended for its technological achievements. The popular British automotive show “Top Gear” had an episode featuring a race between a dog-sled and a tricked out Toyota pickup to get to the North Pole. In the process, the Brits became the first people to ever drive to the North Pole. Luckily, they went to the magnetic pole, rather than the pole based on the rotational axis of the Earth, thus not interfering with the Russian expedition. Had they met there, it almost certainly would have led to a further deepening of the current Russian-British spat.

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