for National Geographic News
Russia has laid claim to the seafloor at the North Pole, planting its national flag underwater in the hopes of securing the Arctic's potential motherlode of natural resources.
In an unprecedented dive beneath the ice, two three-person submersibles descended 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to the bottom, where one symbolically dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag.
Nobody knows for sure what resources lie beneath the Arctic Ocean, but oil and gas are among the greatest possible interests.
And with global warming causing the icepack to shrink, offshore drilling in the Arctic might prove to be the last great oil frontier (related: "As Arctic Ice Melts, Rush Is on for Shipping Lanes, More" [February 25, 2005]).
The Russian claim to the region, made Thursday, is based on international law that sets a 200-mile (322-kilometer) territorial limit stretching from the coast into open waters. This limit can be expanded if a country's continental shelf extends further out to sea.
Since 2001 Russian officials have been arguing that an undersea formation called the Lomonosov Ridge is part of Siberia's shelf, and that the country is therefore entitled to sole rights to the ridge and the nearby seabed.
Still, the Russians acknowledge that planting the flag was a purely symbolic act.
"It means nothing" from a legal standpoint, Viktor Posyolov, deputy director of Russia's Institute of World Ocean Geology and Mineral Resources, told the Associated Press several days before the dive.
And Ted McDorman, a law professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, told National Geographic News that "what the Russians have done is good politics, but it doesn't affect the legal situation one way or the other."
The 1,200-mile-long (2,000-kilometer-long) Lomonosov Ridge rises more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) above the seabed and runs all the way from Siberia to North America (download a printable map of the Arctic Ocean).
Because the ridge links Canada to Russia, the Canadians have disputed Russia's claim to the underwater turf.
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