MOSCOW -- Two Russian mini-submarines returned to the surface at the North Pole yesterday after diving to the sea bottom to plant a flag and collect geological samples.
"It was so lovely down there," Artur Chilingarov, a prominent polar explorer who descended in the first mini-sub, told Russian news media after the dive. "If a hundred or a thousand years from now, someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag," he said, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
On its ascent, the first mini-sub spent about 40 minutes "drifting under the ice at a depth of 15 meters while a suitable hole in the ice for it to emerge was being identified," Vladimir Strugatskiy, vice president of the Association of Polar Explorers, told Itar-Tass. "That was one of the most difficult parts of the ascent."
Ice in the area was about 5 feet thick, with many small patches of open water.
The first mini-sub dived to a spot 2.65 miles below the surface and the second sub to a nearby location 2.67 miles below the surface, NTV television reported. The subs spent about nine hours under water.
The expedition was part of an effort to bolster Russian claims to about 460,000 square miles of sea floor believed to hold lucrative deposits of oil and natural gas. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia's claim depends not on dropping the Russian flag but on proving that its continental shelf extends to the North Pole.
While extracting resources from the Arctic Ocean floor presents huge technical challenges, global warming is reducing the size of the polar ice cap and boosting the potential for such activities. The part of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia could hold oil and natural gas deposits equal to about 25 percent of the world's current reserves, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti said.
Video footage taken before the dive showed a stiff Russian flag and stand made of rust-proof titanium attached to the outside of one of the mini-subs. A robotic arm was used to put it on the seabed. The second mini-sub gathered geological samples from the ocean floor.
"The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia's claim, but to prove that our shelf extends to the North Pole," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday. From the diplomatic point of view, he said, the issue "will be resolved in strict compliance with international law."
The density of the seabed samples retrieved by the mission will help show whether the region is part of Russia's continental shelf, Itar-Tass said. The crew of the second mini-sub included Swedish millionaire Fredrik Paulsen, who paid $3 million for the journey, and Australian polar researcher Michael McDowell, Itar-Tass said.
The flag planting drew sharp words yesterday from Canada, which also has extensive claims in the Arctic Ocean. "This isn't the 15th century," Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay told CTV television. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory.'"
David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.