On August 2, Russia’s deep submergence vehicle, MIR-1, planted a titanium flag 13,980 feet underwater on the ocean floor at the North Pole. This effort was one of the latest in a series of territorial gambits in the Arctic, where a substantial proportion of the world’s energy reserves—mostly in oil and methane—may reside beneath the ocean floor. That untapped wealth, along with the prospect of a lucrative ice-free trade route through the Northwest Passage, is stirring up a mapping fervor the region hasn’t seen since the 18th century.
With Arctic ice melting at an accelerating rate, nations are looking to travel through a region that has been barren since James Cook mapped the Bering Strait in 1778. Russia, the United States, and others are pursuing more detailed mapping and marking of the Arctic floor. The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong has been studying multiyear sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, and the U.S. Coast Guard is sounding waters to determine the extent of the Alaskan continental shelf.
The intensity of activity has provoked a show of bravado—military war games in the service of sovereignty operations—by the Canadian government, which claims much of the melting area.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that Arctic ice shrank by 131,000 square miles between August 17 and 21, leaving ice coverage that is well below the 2005 record low of 2.05 million square miles. This has made the Northwest Passage easier to access than was thought possible even five years ago. “We used to say that maybe by the middle of the century the Arctic would be seasonably navigable,” says Sheldon Drobot, an Arctic researcher with the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research. “Climate change is moving faster than we thought in the Arctic. At the current rate, we could see a seasonal shipping route in the next decade or two.”