National Geographic : 2009 May
• is is a story about the changing Arctic, but not only in the ways we expect. e changes most important to its future may be those from millions of years in its past, from times between the Triassic and early Tertiary, when the major basins in the Arctic were just being formed. Pieces of the supercontinent Pangaea were dri ing apart, and at times greenhouse gases warmed the world to far hotter than it is today. One might say that parts of the Arctic were, for a time, almost tropical---to some degree because temperatures were higher globally, but more so because parts of the Arctic have not always been in the Arctic: Some dri ed north, over geologic time, from warmer latitudes. e creation of oil and gas deposits requires the right mix of organic material, heat, rock, pressure, and pas- sage of time---and it may be hard to look at the Arctic today and imagine that it ever had enough organic life, enough heat. But for geolo- gists, it is hard to imagine that it did not. Now the oor of the Arctic Ocean appears to be rich in petroleum---home, according to some estimates, to nearly a quarter of the world s undiscovered supply. Sea ice is melting drastically, opening the sea to shipping and the sea oor to mineral exploration. And that sea oor is being eyed by the ve countries bordering it---Canada, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the U.S.---all hoping to claim a piece. ON A DREARY THURSDAY EXACTLY two weeks after Chilingarov s ag planting, the oceanographer leading the United States Arctic e ort sits in a Mexican restaurant in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in North America. It is a strange place to be eat- ing chips and salsa, and it is a strange time to be Larry Mayer, a University of New Hampshire professor who is one of the world s few experts in what it takes to claim the ocean oor. Until recently, his task has been obscure; now, thanks to Chilingarov, journalists are calling daily, and foreign governments are watching. Assembled in the restaurant are 21 others---18 scientists, two guys from the State Department, and me--- and tomorrow we begin a month-long survey of what may someday become the American Arctic. e Healy, the newest of the U.S. Coast Guard s three aging polar icebreakers, is just offshore, and we will be shuttled to it, three at a time, in a rented helicopter. Before we go, Mayer has a request, one that acknowledges how di erent things are this year: "No photos of American ags," he says. Everybody laughs. "No, I m serious," he says. "If a picture gets out in the press, we ve got big problems." For all the talk of con ict in the Arctic, there is broad agreement among northern nations, Russia included, on how to claim a piece of it: You map it. Maps matter because the shape and geology of the sea oor matter, and the shape and geology of the sea oor matter thanks to an article in the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a playbook for partition that has been rati ed by 156 countries. (Because of obstructionism by a few UN-wary senators, the U.S. is not yet among them, but it is acting as if it is.) Under the treaty, if a state wants to grow its maritime boundaries past the customary 200 nautical miles, it must prove that the ocean bot- tom is continental in origin---part of its same landmass, only underwater. Political questions can have scienti c answers. So politicians have turned to scientists---oceanographers like Mayer for the sea oor s shape and seismic surveyors for its underlying geology---to build their case. Only Norway has a Law of the Sea submission under active review; the U.S., Canada, Den- mark, and Russia are still busy mapping. Since 2003 Mayer s State Department--directed missions have been charting around the Chukchi Plateau, an undersea ridge that extends nearly 600 miles north of Barrow. His job, he says, is simply to discover what lies beneath the world s least explored ocean; politicians can squabble over what these discoveries mean. e ocean- ographer s cliché is that we know more about the surface of the moon than about the sea oor, McKenzie Funk s book about climate change, Best Laid Plans, will be published by Penguin Press. is is his rst story for National Geographic.