Who Owns the Arctic?

A critical question – as the world faces the possibility of an Arctic Ocean that may soon be ice-free in late summer.

Through her nomination as the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has increased interest in her state and its energy resources. Meanwhile, Russia has become more aggressive in controlling territory with energy resources. Both Russia and the United States are now rushing to claim energy resources that may lie below the Arctic Ocean.

icebreaker
Creative Commons License photo credit: angela7dreams

In producing an update for the Planetarium’s Ice Worlds show, we discovered political and economic changes that follow the loss of Arctic sea ice.  The melting of Arctic Sea ice has opened the Northwest Passage through the Canadian islands, past the coast of northern Alaska and into the northern Pacific Ocean. This course reduces the ocean distance between Europe and Asia by 5,000 nautical miles. An increase in summer shipping through the Arctic is on its way – from cruise ships to oil tankers. Ice cover is lowest in late summer so the passage remains open now for the second summer. It will close again with the cold of Arctic winter. 

Icebergs and Parakeets. Lago Grey, Patagonia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Deger

Melting Arctic ice will soon open up much of the Arctic Ocean to travel and to the mining of oil and gas underneath Arctic waters. Only five bordering countries can claim parts of the Arctic sea floor: Russia, Norway, Denmark (through its ownership of Greenland), Canada, and the United States. (Here is a territorial map of the Arctic.) Historically, a country could claim exclusive economic control over fishing and mining of resources in an area extending 200 nautical miles from its coastline. This boundary leaves the central Arctic Ocean unclaimed.

However, according to the Law of the Sea treaty, countries can extend their claim in areas that are an extension of that country’s undersea continental shelf. The US Geological Survey estimates that 22% of the worlds’ undiscovered resources, including oil and natural gas, lie in the extensive continental shelves of the Arctic. Therefore, the shape of these continental shelves is critical in determining who owns these resources.

Perito Moreno
Creative Commons License photo credit: untipografico

The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the continental shelf that borders Canada and Greenland, over the Pole, to Russia’s continental shelf. All three nations now claim this ridge as an extension of their continental shelves and seek to extend their territory to the North Pole.

In August 2007, two mini-submarines, the Mir 1 and Mir 2, planted a one meter-high Russian flag on the ridge near the North Pole. Descending to 4,300 meters, the mini-subs collected water and sediment samples from the seabed to shore up the Russian claim that the ridge is an integral part of Russia. If recognized, this claim would give Russia control of almost half of the Arctic Ocean seabed. The “Cold Rush” has begun!

To learn more about the Poles of Earth and the other ice worlds of the solar system, visit the newly revised Ice Worlds show, beginning this weekend.

Live From the Poles: North Lake and the Journey Home

Our guest blogger today is Chris Linder, a Research Associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He is the project manager and field photographer for the National Science Foundation-sponsored Live from the Poles project. He’s been sending us weekly updates about their progress.

On July 21, scouts, summer campers and Ecoteens had a chance to get their most pressing climate questions answered from Ian Joughin, the leader of the Greenland Glacier Expedition that Chris has been writing about here through a live satellite link to the campsite in Greenland; later that night, adults got their turn. You can listen in, below.


The team is now back from the Greenland; here’s Chris’ last post on what they learned.

North Lake and the Journey Home

It has been a whirlwind since my last post—a hectic final week on the Greenland ice sheet studying two glacial lakes, a helicopter transfer back to the town of Ilulissat, and a long series of flights taking us home. Warm socks and down jackets are now a thing of the past—I’m typing this dispatch in 87-degree heat in Seattle (I know that’s not really hot for Texans, but it’s quite a tough adjustment for me after a month of subfreezing temperatures!)

A final aerial survey just before we left showed
that the lakes were beginning to form ice on the
surface again. As winter returns to the ice, the
lakes will freeze solid and remain frozen
until the next summer. © Chris Linder, WHOI

Our final week on the ice was dedicated to exploring two nearby lakes, one of which had recently drained (dubbed “North Lake”) and another that was partially full of water when we arrived (dubbed “North North Lake”).

North Lake made the news earlier this year when Dr. Sarah Das (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and Dr. Ian Joughin (University of Washington Applied Physics Lab/Polar Science Center) published a pair of papers in the journal Science about the spectacular draining event that they captured with their instrumentation in July 2006. That summer, a giant hole called a moulin opened up in the lake bed and drained the entire water volume (which is a lot; this lake is several kilometers long!) in an hour and a half. This year, the lake was already empty when we arrived (in fact, we had already heard from colleagues that it drained on July 10, the day we arrived at South Lake camp), so the research team had the freedom to explore the empty lake basin on foot.

The dimpled surface on these tilted blocks shows
that these were part of the former lake bed. The
cracking of the ice sheet surface caused them to break
free and float to the surface as the lake drained.
© Chris Linder, WHOI

Our visits to the North Lake basin revealed a bizarre landscape of car-sized blocks, canyons, rivers and waterfalls. The variation in the landscape on the ice sheet, particularly in the drained lake beds, is staggering. I expected it to be, well, flat, and white.

What we saw was quite different—towering blocks of pushed-up ice, rivers of freezing melt water carving their way through 60-foot deep canyons, gaping bottomless cracks and holes. The color of the ice ranges from opaque white to clear to bluebird blue. To my glaciologist companions, the landscape was also an open book. The blocks indicate where major cracks occurred (the blocks are pieces of the ice sheet that are broken loose during the cracking), and the rivers lead us to the crevasses (cracks) or holes (moulins) where the water was still pouring through the ice sheet to the bedrock. If you put your ear to the cracks, you can hear the water echoing in the depths.


Moulins, or holes in the ice sheet,
can be an otherworldly blue.
© Chris Linder, WHOI

It will still be some time before the final picture of the 2008 lake draining can be told. The scientists had only a brief amount of time to examine their instruments and prepare them for another year of data collecting before we had to pack up and fly out. In the coming months, scientists will be examining the data their instruments collected over the previous year. Dr. Mark Behn, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Geology and Geophysics department (and resident “icequakes” expert), had this comment about the data he did look at:

“Even with a 10 minute look, I can see that the quality of the data is good, which tells me the instruments are working. We can also see the timing of large cracking events that drain the lakes, which stand out as dramatic spikes on the record.”

Be sure to check the Polar Discovery website to read dispatches about our other adventures at North Lake, including the release of a harmless tracer dye into a moulin and the investigation of “North North Lake.” 

Thank you to everyone who came in to the museum on July 21 to talk with moderator Twila Moon and Dr. Ian Joughin live from the ice. Stay tuned for future Live from the Poles expeditions on the Polar Discovery website. Until then, best wishes and thanks again for reading,

Chris

Interested in learning more about Chris, his team and their journey to Greenland?
Learn about the purpose of this trip.
Travel to Greenland with him.
Read what they did their first week.