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Russian subs surface after dive to Arctic Ocean floor

'It was so lovely down there,' an explorer says after a mission to plant a flag and get samples.

August 03, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Two Russian mini-submarines returned safely to the surface Thursday at the North Pole after diving to the sea bottom to plant a Russian flag and collect geological samples.

"It was so lovely down there," Artur Chilingarov, a prominent polar explorer who descended in the first mini-sub, told Russian news media after the dive. "If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag," he said, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

On its ascent to the surface, the first mini-sub spent about 40 minutes "drifting under the ice at a depth of 15 meters while a suitable hole in the ice for it to emerge was being identified," Vladimir Strugatskiy, vice president of the Assn. of Polar Explorers, told Itar-Tass. "That was one of the most difficult parts of the ascent."

Ice in the area was about 5 feet thick, with many small patches of open water.

The first mini-sub dived to a spot 2.65 miles below the surface and the second sub to a nearby location 2.67 miles below the surface, Russia's NTV television reported. The subs spent about nine hours underwater.

Before beginning the descent, Chilingarov, who is also a deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, declared that "every dive is a heroic deed -- a heroic deed of those who dive for the sake of science and for Russia's presence in this region."

The expedition was part of an effort to bolster Russian claims to about 460,000 square miles of sea floor believed to hold lucrative deposits of oil and natural gas. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia's claim depends not on dropping the Russian flag, but on proving that its continental shelf extends to the pole.

Extracting resources from the Arctic Ocean floor faces huge technical challenges, but global warming is reducing the size of the polar ice cap and boosting the potential for such activities. The part of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia could hold oil and natural gas deposits equal to about 25% of the world's current known reserves, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti said.

Video taken before the dive showed a stiff Russian flag and stand made of rust-proof titanium attached to the outside of one of the mini-subs. A robotic arm was used to place it on the seabed, along with a capsule containing a message to future generations. The second mini-sub gathered geological samples from the ocean floor.

"The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia's claim, but to prove that our shelf extends to the North Pole," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said Thursday. "There are specific scientific methods for doing this. I think the expedition, including the submersibles' dive to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in the North Pole area, will provide additional scientific evidence for what we are planning to achieve."

From the diplomatic point of view, the issue "will be resolved in strict compliance with international law," Lavrov said.

The density of the seabed samples retrieved by the mission will help show whether the region is part of Russia's continental shelf, Itar-Tass said.

The crew of the second mini-sub included two foreigners: the Swedish millionaire Fredrik Paulsen, who paid $3 million for the journey, and Australian polar researcher Michael McDowell, Itar-Tass said.

Placing the Russian flag on the ocean floor was intended to have symbolic meaning, and people involved with the mission repeatedly compared it with humans' first step on the moon.

But the flag planting drew a sharp critique Thursday from Canada, which also has extensive claims in the Arctic Ocean.

"This isn't the 15th century," Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay told CTV television. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory.' "

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters, "I'm not sure of whether they've put a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bedsheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn't have any legal standing or effect on this claim."

Under international law, the five countries with coastal territories inside the Arctic Circle -- Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark -- can claim an economic zone extending 200 miles into the Arctic Ocean from their coasts, regardless of the structure of the continental shelf.

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david.holley@latimes.com

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