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Thursday 26 July 2007: Page 11

A Russian submarine is on the way to the North Pole in a bid to capture the potentially lucrative oilfield beneath. But who actually owns the North Pole and who has a right to the oil? And what’s known about this mysterious and beautiful region?


If Vladimir Putin’s plans go as expected, a Russian flag will soon be proudly flying at the North Pole – or rather, under it. A Russian expedition set sail on Tuesday for the Arctic with a view to sending a submarine junder the ice shelf to plant a special titanium flag and symbolically claim the area for the Kremlin.

“The Arctic is Russian,” declared expedition leader and parliamentary deputy Artur Chilingarov. “We are going to be the first to put a flag there, a Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, at the very point of the North Pole.”

Technically, no one owns the North Pole. Under international law, the five surrounding Arctic states – Russia, the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark (via its control of Greenland) – are limited to a 200-mile economic zone around their coasts. Since 2001, however, Russia has petitioned the UN, claiming a larger slice -including the pole itself- arguing that the Arctic seabed and Siberia are linked by the same continental shelf.

What is the attraction of an area which is essentially a vast, ice-covered ocean at the most northern part of Earth? The region possesses massive quantities of oil, gas and minerals. The melting of the ice, due to climate change, could also open a lucrative short cut between Asia and North America. The area Putin is claiming is a triangle five times the size of Britain with twice as much oil as Saudi Arabia.

The Russian team plans to send a nuclear icebreaker to smash through the weakened Arctic ice, leading the way for the main expedition ship.  

But if the Russian flag is successfully planted at the North Pole, it wouldn’t be the first flag to set up home there.

On April 6,1909, American Commander Robert Peary, along with fellow explorer Matthew Henson, claimed to be the first to conquer the Pole, with Peary – who had lost all his toes in previous Arctic journeys – leaving behind an American flag that his wife Josephine had sewn for him.

Their support team had included 24 men, 19 wooden sledges and 133 dogs but it was just Peary, Henson and four Inuit men named Ootah, Seeglo, Egigingwah and Ooqueah, who arrived at the Pole in a staggeringly fast 38 days.

In fact, Peary’s speed has led to doubts about the validity of his claim.

His record was broken only two years ago by five explorers led by Briton Tom Avery who managed the 483-mile “mission impossible” in 36 days, 22 hours and 11 minutes.

The first undisputed sighting of the Pole was on May 12, 1926, by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his American sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth from the airship Norge. Some more bizarre expeditions include that of Fukashi Kamami of Japan who, on April 20, 1987, became the first person to ride a motorcycle to the Pole.

Most recently, London-based lawyer Lewis Gordon Pugh became the first person to swim the icy waters off the North Pole – in swimming trunks. He completed a 1km swim in 18 minutes.

The first people to reach it on foot (or skis) and return with no outside help – without dogs, renewed supplies or aeroplanes -were Canadian Richard Weber and Russian Misha Malakhov in 1995. No one has completed the arduous journey since.

And it’s little wonder. While the North Pole is significantly warmer than the South Pole, it nevertheless maintains an average temperature of -18C. There is no land, just waters almost permanently covered with constantly shifting ice, which makes it impossible to construct a permanent station.

GIVEN the North Pole’s position at the northernmost point of Earth, all directions point south. Night occurs continuously for half the year and day for the other half, depending whether the Pole is facing the sun.

Thus sunrise begins at the vernal equinox on March 20, taking three months for the sun to reach its highest point at the summer solstice when sunset begins, taking a further three months to reach sunset at the autumnal equinox.

In winter, temperatures range from -43C to -26C with summer temperatures at around freezing point. It is less cold than the South Pole because it lies at sea level in the middle of an ocean, which acts as a reservoir of heat, rather than at altitude in a land mass.

The ice is two to three metres thick, though there is considerable variation and some environmentalists predict that within a few decades, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer, with severe environmental implications.

The Arctic itself is the immense region around the North Pole, usually defined as the area north of the Arctic CSrcle – a line of latitude at 66 degrees 27 minutes north and about 1,630 miles south of the North Pole. This is the point where the sun stays above the horizon for at least one whole day each year -the area of the “midnight sun”. The further north, the longer the sun stays above the horizon in summer.

The greatest part of the area is the ice-covered Arctic Ocean – the world’s smallest ocean- surrounded by tree-less, frozen land, including the Northern territories of Iceland, Greenland, Siberia, Scandinavia, Alaska and Canada. It measures 14,000,000 square miles, roughly 150 times the size of Britain.

OF COURSE, the area is also home to the polar bear, though numbers are dwindling, driven from their dens on the melting ice by global warming.
The polar bear is unique to the Arctic, as are the walrus and musk ox.

Grasses, sedges, mosses and lichens all exist on the permafrost. Here, too, are Arctic hares, lemmings and caribou as well as the Arctic fox and wolves.

Seals and beluga whales inhabit the ocean, along with Arctic char, trout and grayling. Every summer snow geese and snowy owls migrate to the Arctic to nest – the Arctic is an eco-system that teems with life. Indigenous groups have lived there for centuries, adapting to the extreme conditions.

There are three main groups of Alaska natives – the Inuit, Aleut and Indian – while in Russia there are 16 recognised indigenous peoples. Many still live in conical tents, wear clothing made of skins and rely on hunting.

Remarkably, there has been a recent influx of immigrants, mostly of European background, creating small communities of shops, churches and schools.

And while they may have to suffer difficult conditions, they can also experience one of the world’s most beautiful sights – the northern lights, or aurora borealis. This amazing natural light display is caused by gases and is visible only from the northern hemisphere.

Oh, and there’s also a hot-line to Father Christmas. In 1995 the Canadian Post Office promised to deliver letters addressed to Santa Claus, the North Pole, if they included the post code H0H OHO. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.


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