Earth Science - Other

Who Owns the North and South Poles

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"Who Owns the North and South Poles"
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It can only happen once in all of history: on Thursday, August 2, 2007, at 8 o'clock GMT, Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles member Anatoly Sagalevitch, piloting the Russian deep submersible MIR-1, was the first human to reach the ocean bottom at the geographic North Pole, where he planted a titanium flag of the Russian Federation. With him inside MIR-1, he carried an official Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles Expedition Flag, which he has since returned to the Club with appropriate endorsements.

It all started back in 2005 - at least officially. Anatoly has long been the brains and the muscle behind the PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, the guys who own and operate the world's deepest diving submersibles, MIR-1 and MIR-2. This ownership includes, of course the submersibles' mothership, RV Akademik Keldysh, a fleet of support craft and equipment, and a host of people to maintain and operate them.

The Shirshov Institute has been Anatoly's baby since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and since that time, he has built it into one of the world's premier oceanographic research institutes.

RV Keldysh is one of the largest oceanographic support vessels in the World. She is equipped with a range of laboratories, and is the only vessel in the world capable of supporting the operation of two deep-diving submersibles simultaneously. Keldysh can accommodate a total of 130 personnel, and up to 35 of these berths are allocated to visiting scientists, filmmakers or other charter groups.

The world of research oceanography is not always capable of utilizing the total available oceanographic support systems. When these systems lie idle, they lose money, and in the world of research, that is nothing but bad.

During the late 1990s, Australian Adventurer Mike McDowell developed "High Adventure - High-Dollar Travel Expeditions," taking well-heeled clients up Everest, and renting Russian icebreakers in the off season to take adventurers to the North Pole - for a price. Club member Ralph White met McDowell, and introduced him to Anatoly and his research fleet. They reasoned that well-heeled paying customers could underwrite operations during slack periods. This would allow Anatoly to keep his ships, submersibles, support equipment, and personnel in peak condition, and even underwrite some of the oceanographic research. White suggested Titanic, and the rest, he says, "is history."

Together with McDowell and Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles member Don Walsh, pilot of the Trieste on its historic dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, Anatoly created Deep Ocean Expeditions (DOE) in 2005. They set out to take paying passengers to the Titanic, to the Bismark, to the undersea volcanos near the Azores, and to the ocean bottom at the North Pole.

On June 28, 2006, DOE formally announced the launch of the Deep Frontier Expedition project, an ambitious and exciting multi-year, multi-ocean expedition aboard the RV Keldysh, and utilizing the twin Mir submersibles.

Project Manager Rob McCallum said: "The combination of a large oceanographic vessel with the unique abilities the twin extreme depth submersibles and a world class side-scan sonar system, will provide us with an amazing exploration capability. The Deep Frontier Expedition will involve private adventurers, scientists, filmmakers and those interested in conducting operations at extreme depth. It's a unique opportunity for anyone wishing to accomplish something in the deep ocean."

The Deep Frontier Expedition was designed to be a multi-year voyage that will see RV Keldysh visit five oceans. Her anticipated voyage plan would see her undertake a range of exciting projects in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Southern Oceans. According to DOE Project scientist Peter Batson: "The expedition will see Keldysh accomplish many dives in areas previously unseen by humans, so I guess it's inevitable that we will see things that have never been seen before. It's a chance to gather data about the deep sea that can be used to help us better understand and manage the oceans that surround us."

RV Keldysh was expected to visit hydrothermal vents, seamounts, historical shipwrecks, sites of special geological and biological interest and to conduct some of the first submersible dives in the Arctic and Antarctic waters. Her twin Mir submersibles, each capable of reaching depths of 20,000 feet, were expected to conduct hundreds of dives during the course of the voyage, many of them aided by a powerful sonar system made available by John Cameron that will be deployed to search large areas of the ocean.

On April 16, 2006, the well-laid plans of DOE came against the political will of the Russian Parliament, since the only way they could reach the North Pole with the ships and support equipment that they needed was with the immediate support of the icebreaker RV Akademik Fedorov and the nuclear powered icebreaker NS Rossiya. And guess who controlled these vessels?

The 2006 plans were put on hold while Anatoly worked out an acceptable compromise with none other than his old colleague, Dr. Artur Chilingarov, Hero of the Soviet Union, and Deputy Chairman of the Third State Duma - the Russian Parliament, a position similar to the U.S. Speaker of the House.

Under the terms of this compromise, Dr. Chilingarov (who is a well-known and respected polar scientist) would be the titular head of the expedition, and would be a passenger on MIR-1 along with fellow Duma member Vladimir Gruzdev. Furthermore, the focus of the expedition was changed so that it became a quest to place the Russian flag on the ocean bottom at the North Pole, and to stake out a territorial claim to this "land." Presumably, the reason for this effort was to fortify Russia's claim to a substantial portion of the Arctic ocean, because of vast reserves of oil and gas that probably lie there.

By early 2007, the new or Real North Pole Expedition was set to happen. Scandinavian business tycoon Frederik Paulson and New Zealand marine biologist Peter Batson joined DOE president McDowell, and cofounder Anatoly. The expedition was billed as Russia's contribution to the 2007/2008 International Polar Year.

The expedition officially departed Murmansk on July 24, 2007. RV Keldysh developed engine problems off Franz Joseph Land in the Berents Sea, but the crew fixed the problem in time for Anatoly and team to test-dive both MIRs successfully in the frigid ice-filled arctic water off Franz Joseph Land. Along the way to the Pole, the Russian scientists mapped part of the Lomonosov ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region. The ridge was discovered by the Soviets in 1948 and named after a famed 18th-century Russian scientist, Mikhail Lomonosov.

In December 2001, Moscow claimed that the ridge was an extension of the Eurasian continent, and therefore part of Russia's continental shelf under international law. The U.N. rejected Moscow's application, citing lack of evidence, but Russia is set to resubmit it in 2009. Dr. Chilingarov's hope was that these measurements would help.

Denmark hopes to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Danish territory of Greenland, not Russia. Canada, meanwhile, plans to spend $7 billion to build and operate up to eight Arctic patrol ships in a bid to help protect its sovereignty.

The U.S. Congress is considering an $8.7 billion budget reauthorization bill for the U.S. Coast Guard that includes $72.96 million to operate and maintain the nation's three existing polar icebreakers. The bill also authorizes the Coast Guard to construct two new vessels.

Ten crew members flew ahead by helicopter to the Pole on Thursday, to scout out the best way for Fedorov and Rossiya to clear out a section of ice for the dives. Once RV Keldysh arrived, it was not long before the MIRs were ready for launch.

At 5:30 GMT, MIR-1 commenced her trip to the bottom, piloted by Anatoly, and carrying Dr. Chilingarov and Gruzdev. MIR-2 followed shortly thereafter, piloted by Genya Cherniaev with McDowell and Paulsen as passengers.

Two and a half hours later, at 8:00 GMT, Anatoly planted the flag on the seabed, and thirty minutes later MIR-2 arrived at the bottom. Both submersibles spent about forty minutes on the bottom, taking samples and generally exploring, before returning to the surface some nine and a half hours after they departed.

"It was difficult," said Dr. Chilingarov.

"We are happy and relived to be safely back aboard," said McDowell when MIR-2 returned more than an hour after MIR-1.

Russia was jubilant - it's been a long dry spell for the Russian spirit of exploration. President Putin personally greeted the explorers upon their return.

"It's like putting a flag on the moon," said Sergei Balyasnikov, a spokesman for Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Institute. "For the first time in history, humans have reached the ocean floor under the North Pole."

With a swagger not unlike a typical American, Muscovite Yevgeny Gaziyev told a reporter, "Russia is a great power which needs resources, territories."

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey, said the Russian government was entitled to submit its claim "as members of the Law of the Sea convention." But he dismissed the significance of planting a flag in the North Pole seabed.

Peter Mackay, Canada's foreign affairs minister, dismissed the event as "just a show."

"Look," he said, "this isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory."'

Canada's own claims to the Arctic, he said, were "well-established."

In the coming weeks, Russian expedition researchers plan to set up an Arctic research camp near the pole, called a "drift station" because it will drift with the shifting ice pack in the polar sea, to carry out long-range climate studies. RV Akademik Fedorov is expected to remain in the region until mid-September.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said, "We wish the Russian scientists a safe expedition."

More about this author: Robert Williscroft

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