Hold on tight, kids, the Russkies are coming!
Earlier this week, the Russian mini-submarines Mir-1 and Mir-2 completed their dangerous trek to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to plant a rust-proof titanium flag beneath the North Pole. Russia has been claiming ownership of the region since 2001, and it's not just political posturing. Many are speculating global warming will not only open up the arctic as a trade route but also allow previously-untapped resources to be mined--according to the United States Geological Survey, 25 per cent of the world's unharvested oil and gas reserves lie in the arctic. Instead of being celebrated as a scientific first, however, politicians and news media are busy decrying the move as a 15th-century land grab.
Wait a second there, Mr. MacKay. If 15th century-style flag-dropping is unfashionable, why is Stephen Harper being sent to the region to not only announce the location of Canada's new northern military base, but also reassert Canadian sovereignty over that unfortunate chunk of land known as Hans Island, on which our country (albeit under the Liberals) planted a flag in 2005? If you remember, Canada's been in an on-again, off-again diplomatic battle with Denmark over the 1.3 square kilometre speck for ages, recently exacerbated when then-defense minister Bill Graham visited the island two years ago.
While it's incredibly entertaining to imagine Prime Minister Harper in arctic camouflage dropping from a Sea King helicopter onto a moving dog sled in his quest to secure Canada's arctic interests, what everyone is missing is the fact that Russia's involvement in the region is wholly justified from not only a scientific but also legal perspective. We know far more about the farthest reaches of space than we do about the bottom of the ocean. Although it's difficult to deny the political implications of the Russian dive, the scientists involved are true modern-day explorers and the symbolism of the flags is less about claiming land in the name of a particular country and more about plotting the limits of human discovery. Furthermore, the primary purpose of the mission was not to plant flags but to collect mineral samples which Russia hopes will ultimately justify their 2001 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea claim that the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev underwater mountain ranges are part of its continental shelf, enabling the country to extend its 320 km economic zone further into the arctic circle. While it would obviously be rather unfortunate for Canada (as well as Denmark, the U.S., and a few other northern nations) if the UN sides with Russia, because we are a convention signatory, we would either have to abandon it and suffer the economic consequences or grumble a bit and agree.
That said, it's really unfortunate the symbolism of the flags has overshadowed the scientific achievement of the mission. In all seriousness, no world power or multilateral body seriously considers flag placement a legal way to claim territory. For instance, even though the U.S. placed the first flag on the moon (depending on who you talk to), nobody really recognizes their ownership of it.
The same should be done with the North Pole as was done with the South: because no country really recognizes another's claim to Antarctica, the area is off-limits for military and commercial exploitation. While the arctic has far greater resource potential, it also has far greater potential for environmental calamity. The Exxon Valdez incident and the until-recent moratorium on drilling off Alaska's shore show just how vulnerable this area is. The Russian mission to beneath the pole, while politically tenuous, will hopefully instill a new interest in this region and enable the scientific community to better understand this unique and unknown part of the planet.