Two robot submarines will plunge into the Arctic next month in an effort to help Canada stake a claim to a large swath of potentially mineral-rich seafloor in the polar region.
Data gathered by the yellow torpedo-shaped probes will become part of Canada's bid to prove its continental slope stretches far beyond the 200-nautical-mile territorial limit. The matter will be decided by a U.N. panel overseeing claims under the 28-year-old Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway are involved in a scrum over Arctic bottomland and long-frozen shipping lanes that have started to thaw as global temperatures rise. With scientists predicting that Arctic summers may be ice-free by the 2030s, the five nations have mounted studies they hope will help expand their territories.
At stake is nearly a quarter of the world's oil, gas and minerals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The agency estimates that the Arctic accounts for 22 percent of the world's undiscovered, technically recoverable resources, with about 84 percent of those riches offshore.
In an effort to secure some of that bounty, Canada -- partly in partnership with the United States -- has been mapping the contours and makeup of the Arctic floor since 2006.
The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) mission next month will expand that effort. The two 20-foot vehicles will be outfitted with specialized echo-sounder equipment intended to help scientists create a three-dimensional map of underwater peaks and valleys.
Though Canada has typically employed helicopters and icebreaking ships to scout the Arctic, AUVs are appealing because they can maneuver below thick ice in the eastern Arctic, said Jacob Verhoef, science director for Natural Resources Canada's Law of the Sea program.
"The area in the eastern Arctic is rather difficult, but not impossible to access with an icebreaker," Verhoef said. "Heavy ice is almost always under compression there, so if you break it open to create a passage for an icebreaker, it almost always closes behind you."
The AUVs can also continuously collect data for about 250 miles at a time, potentially creating continuous images of the expedition's 2,500 or so miles.
But AUV technology is far from a sure thing in the Arctic. If there is a problem with an AUV in a standard mission, the vehicle can resurface, put up an antenna and call for help, said James Ferguson, vice president of International Submarine Engineering, which built the AUVs. Not so in the Arctic.
"What's different here is that these are operating under the ice for very long transits," Ferguson said. Surfacing is not an option under thick ice.
And AUVs have time constraints. The subs are programmed to return to a home base on a stable ice floe every three days for a battery charge. But the Arctic's howling winds can move floating ice about a mile a day, and while AUVs are outfitted with a homing beacon, it is not foolproof.
Ferguson said his company has temporarily lost AUVs, including the Theseus, which laid down fiber-optic cable under Arctic ice pack. Still, he said, the company has managed to recover its lost vehicles within a few days.
The expedition dates themselves also must be precise. "There is an eight-week window to do this," Ferguson said.
Wait too long to launch a mission, he said, and the ice will have melted and be too unstable to hold heavy equipment. But start too early -- before early March -- and there may not enough be enough daylight.
U.S. seeks territory
While the United States cannot officially file its own Arctic claim until it ratifies the 1982 Law of the Sea treaty, it has continued to map the seafloor.
"Just because we haven't signed onto [the treaty] doesn't mean we don't define our continental shelf with it," said Brian Van Pay, who specializes in ocean and polar issues at the State Department. "When we sign on, we'll already have some data," he said.
A 2008 Coast Guard survey found the U.S. continental slope extends more than 100 miles farther from the Alaskan coast than previously thought, according to Larry Mayer, who was chief scientist of the mission.
Apart from the land claims, the missions have scientific significance. Last summer, during a joint U.S.-Canadian survey of the Arctic, the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy detected a previously unknown 14-mile-long underwater mountain, or seamount, about 700 miles off Alaska, said Mayer, who also directs the University of New Hampshire's Center for Ocean and Coastal Mapping.
The Arctic maps could also have "important ramifications with respect to climate modeling and climate change" because the global distribution of heat is controlled by ocean currents. Where heat flows is often controlled by the sea floor, Mayer said.
The timeline for U.S. involvement with the treaty -- and if it signs on at all -- depends on the Senate.
While the issue has support on both sides of the aisle, as well as from the oil industry and environmentalists, finding time for it on the Senate calendar has been an obstacle. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who opposes signing onto the treaty because he believes it would mean giving up some U.S. sovereignty, said last spring he would try to block the measure (E&E Daily, May 27, 2009).
Last week, the Pentagon reiterated its support for the treaty in its defense strategy road map, stating that signing on would "support cooperative engagement in the Arctic." It noted that such involvement could "promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region."
Mapping more of the Arctic basin has strategic benefits as well, its proponents say. "From the Navy's perspective, bottom surveys support safety of navigation for submarines and for surface ships in areas where the water becomes shallow," said Capt. Tim Galludet, the deputy director for the Navy's Task Force Climate Change.
So far, much of the Arctic deep remains a mystery and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future since exploration is costly and difficult. About five percent of the Arctic floor has been mapped with modern sonar technology, notes Rear Adm. David Titley, the Navy's official oceanographer and head of its Task Force Climate Change.