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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 August 2007, 01:41 GMT 02:41 UK
Arctic neighbours draw up battle lines
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Russian mini-submarine
The Russians hope their submarines will prove their claim
The Arctic is one of the world's most remote, pristine and for most people, inhospitable parts of the world. But in recent years, there has been intense interest in the region from the countries that border it.

No-one knows for certain, but it is strongly suspected that the seabed below the Arctic Ocean contains vast deposits of oil, minerals and natural gas.

Last week crews aboard Russian submarines, explored and mapped out part of the Lomonosov Ridge which Moscow says extends from Russia's continental shelf.

For good measure one crew took a diversion below the North Pole and in a gesture that made headlines across the world, dropped a Russian flag on the ocean floor.

The Canadian government was not amused by the Russian action, prompting the country's Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mackay to comment.

"You can't go around the world these days dropping flags somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th Century. They're fooling themselves." Mr Mackay said, adding that there was "no question" that the waters belonged to Canada.

The tit-for-tat also gave Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent three day visit to the Arctic, a new sense of urgency.

Politicians in Russia or Canada can never lose domestically by standing up for sovereignty in the Arctic
Professor Michael Byers, University of British Columbia

"Canada has taken its sovereignty too lightly for too long. This government has put a big emphasis on reinforcing and strengthening our sovereignty in the Arctic," Mr Harper declared as he toured the region.

The rhetoric may be bullish, but Canada's claims to Arctic sovereignty are by no means clear cut.

UN control

Jurisdiction over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean is regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by Russia, Canada and Denmark. It is widely expected that the United States will ratify within the next year.

The future status of the region's ocean floor will be determined on the basis of scientific evidence that demonstrates whether or not the seabed is an extension of a claiming country's continental shelf.

Michael Byers is a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia. He says that the Russian submarine mission was a legitimate research project to collect seismic data to bolster their claim to an area off the Lomonosov Ridge.

Arctic scene
The Arctic Ocean is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves

"The Russians are fully committed, at a political and scientific level, to filing a comprehensive scientific claim, with the United Nations. They're perfectly entitled to do so, in fact I think we should celebrate that they're working within the framework of international law," he said.

Professor Byers acknowledges that the Russian crew's diversionary flag-planting incident was little more than a publicity stunt, but says that Canadian politicians are also guilty of posturing for domestic consumption.

"Politicians in Russia or Canada can never lose domestically by standing up for sovereignty in the Arctic. But underlying all of the rhetoric is the very important fact that all of the Arctic countries are working within a legal framework."

Vital strait

Experts believe that no one country will gain control over the disputed region of the Arctic near the North Pole and that any future agreement will simply set boundaries, especially in areas where there is some overlap in claims.

But the North Pole is not the only region of the Arctic where Canada has a fight on its hands. Melting ice, has led to the gradual opening up of the fabled Northwest Passage which may one day link up the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Canada has always assumed that the passage is theirs but the United States says it regards the waterway as an international strait.

The dispute is one of the only recent sources of tension between the normally close allies. Most of Mr Harper's tour of the Arctic was focussed on the strait, in particular his announcement that a winter warfare military school for Canada's armed forces will be built at a point about mid-way along the passage.

Missing from this debate has been the question of how environmentally desirable exploiting the Arctic and its resources will be.

The irony that global warming may have created the melting ice along the Northwest Passage has not been lost on some observers, especially the indigenous groups living in Canada's north .

But with Denmark the latest country to announce that it is sending its own team of scientists to the region, there seems no end to the international scramble for one of the last relatively untouched parts of the world.

Arctic map
1) North Pole: Russia leaves its flag on the seabed, 4,000m (13,100ft) beneath the surface, as part of its claims for oil and gas reserves.
2) Lomonosov Ridge: Russia argues that this underwater feature is an extension of its continental territory and is looking for evidence.
3) 200-nautical mile (370km) line: Shows how far countries' agreed economic area extends beyond their coastline. Often set from outlying islands.
4) Russian-claimed territory: The bid to claim a vast area is being closely watched by other countries. Some could follow suit.

Canada's prime minister visits the Arctic

Canada PM asserts Arctic claims
10 Aug 07 |  Americas
Russia plants flag under N Pole
02 Aug 07 |  Europe
Russia ahead in Arctic 'gold rush'
01 Aug 07 |  Special Reports
Canada 'to reclaim Arctic waters'
10 Jul 07 |  Americas

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