With two research icebreakers, over 100 geologists and geographers from Canada and the United States, three Inuit mammal spotters on the watch for vulnerable wildlife, and two underwater autonomous vehicles that can operate beneath sheet ice, a geological survey team set out last night to crush their way through the last untrammelled regions of the Arctic, mapping the sea floor as they go. But there's far more at stake than just a geological survey: it may be the last chance for Canada to collect the high-resolution data the country needs to stake a claim to a ridge along the Arctic sea floor—and the potential natural resources it holds. Canada is facing a 2013 deadline to make their case as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs this process and which Canada ratified in 2003, gives nations a decade to submit such claims.
The quarry of the North American survey team is the Lomonosov Ridge, a massive range of craggy undersea mountains that seems to have more or less connected Siberia to North America and shifted along with both continents for 55 million years. One of the last major unexplored geological features on Earth, the ridge has slowly lost the ice sheet covering it thanks to global warming, opening the sea to exploration—and offshore mining and drilling. Under UNCLOS, a country can claim land up to 200 nautical miles off its shore, so countries such as Canada, Russia, and Denmark (via its ownership of Greenland) are seeking to establish that their continental shelves are physically connected to the Lomonosov.
That's far from an easy task, says Jacob Verhoef, the Halifax-based geoscientist and science director for UNCLOS at Natural Resources Canada. Whether the ridge is an extension of one country, more than one, or its own entity, is "the million dollar question," he says. And that's not just hyperbole: Canada has spent $109 million on the project so far. All the same, Verhoef says, "We think we have a reasonable case, otherwise we wouldn't collect the data." In the meantime, Russia is performing similar mapping missions and is expected to submit their claim this year. Denmark plans to make one in 2014, and the United States, which has not ratified UNCLOS but agrees to abide by its provisions, also hopes for some stake.
Canada's mapping project has now been running for 10 years, and Verhoef's group has published numerous papers on the geological features of the Arctic sea floor, but the last piece of the puzzle, a 2000 kilometer-long extension of the Lomonosov Ridge called the Alpha Ridge that runs north of the Yukon coast, remains virtually unexplored by anyone prior to the 6-week cruise that just launched. The researchers, which include U.S. teams from NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the University of New Hampshire, will be collecting seismic data from this region by bouncing sound blasts off the sea floor to determine its sediment makeup, as well conducting a multibeam analysis that will give them an idea of the shape of the ridge. The U.S. icebreaker Healy and Canada's Louis St. Laurent tag team their ice breaking duties: one goes ahead and the other collects data. That collaboration, Verhoef says, results in much better data than either ship could collect alone.
Then there's the question of how much a successful claim to this area might be worth. USGS satellite data collected in 2008 suggests the amount of oil in the Arctic is about 90 billion barrels, worth about $7.2 trillion at current prices, but this was at best a "sophisticated first guess," Verhoef says. Now that ships are going out, "we're in a far better situation to have a look at what the resource potential is." Still, the priority of the new survey is not oil exploration but looking for proof Canada is connected to Lomonosov Ridge. "We're too focused on meeting the deadline," Verhoef says, to worry about anything else. Warm winters in the Arctic that cause unpredictable cracking in the ice pack have already caused delays for safety reasons. Still, the seismic data that his survey is collecting will be key to knowing where oil deposits may lie.
So what would be the implications of developing this last bit of unspoilt wilderness? Verhoef says that's beyond the scope of his survey mission, but he notes that whichever government wins the land would set a regulatory regime for how this Arctic land is exploited. "I personally feel this is an environment we should not destroy. We should preserve it as much as possible," he says. To Verhoef, the region's geological mysteries are as important as its geopolitical implications. "We still don't know the global picture of how the Arctic evolved."
*This item has been corrected to reflect that Jacob Verhoef is science director for UNCLOS for Natural Resources Canada, not National Resources Canada.