Race For Arctic Seabed Is On

ice, arctic, sieberg, 071507
Canada's prime minister announced plans Friday for an army training center and a deepwater port on the third day of an Arctic trip meant to assert sovereignty over a region, while Denmark said it was staking its own claim with a scientific expedition.

The United States, meanwhile, launched an expedition Friday toward the Arctic to map the sea floor off Alaska, but a scientist linked to the project denied the U.S. was actively joining the Arctic competition.

The race to secure subsurface rights to the Arctic seabed heated up when Russia sent two small submarines to plant a tiny national flag under the North Pole last week. The United States and Norway also have competing claims in the vast Arctic region, where a U.S. study suggests as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's three-day trip to the Canadian Arctic had been planned for months. But it has taken on added significance since the Russian flag-planting, which Canada and the U.S. promptly dismissed as legally meaningless.

Harper, speaking from the territory of Nunavut, said the new military installations would help back up Canada's claim to the waters and natural resources of the Northwest Passage, which runs below the North Pole from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago.

The United States has said the passage is neutral territory.

"Canada's new government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: Use it or lose it," Harper said from a storage shed protecting him from howling winds on a barren, rock-strewn highland in Resolute Bay, where the temperature was 35 degrees.

"Today's announcements tell the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic," he added, flanked by rifle-toting members of the Canadian Rangers, an Inuit volunteer force.

Resolute Bay, about 370 miles south of the North Pole, will be home to a new army training center for cold-weather fighting that will house up to 100 military personnel. The new deep-sea port will be built for navy and civilian purposes on the north end of Baffin Island.

The U.S. project has been in the works and isn't an effort to lay claims, according to Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire.

"We're basically just doing science," said Mayer. "We've had this trip planned for months, and it has nothing to do with the Russians planting their flag."

The purpose of the mapping work aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy is to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska, Mayer said. It's not a claim, he said, but a process of registering boundary information with the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Global warming has raised the stakes in the scramble for sovereignty in the Arctic because shrinking polar ice could someday open up resource development and new shipping lanes.