A Russian expedition aiming to claim vast swaths of the Arctic Ocean seabed reached the North Pole on Wednesday, and scientists immediately began preparing to send two minisubmarines more than 13,200 feet under the ice to mark the seafloor with a Russian flag.
The Rossiya atomic icebreaker plowed a path to the pole through a sheet of multiyear ice, clearing the way for the Akademik Fedorov research ship to follow, said Sergei Balyasnikov, a spokesman for the Arctic and Antarctic research institute that prepared the expedition.
The voyage has some scientific goals, including the study of Arctic plants and animals. But its chief goal appears to be advancing Russia's political and economic influence by strengthening its legal claims to the huge gas and oil deposits thought to lie beneath the Arctic seafloor.
The symbolic gesture, along with geologic data being gathered by expedition scientists, is intended to prop up Moscow's claims to more than 460,000 square miles of the Arctic shelf - which, by some estimates, may contain 10-billion tons of oil and gas deposits.
About 100 scientists aboard the Akademik Fedorov are specifically looking for evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge - a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region - is a geologic extension of Russia, and therefore can be claimed by it under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The expedition reflects an intense rivalry between Russia, the United States, Canada and other nations whose shores face the polar ocean for the Arctic's icebound riches.
The Russians are not the only ones eyeing the Arctic seabed. Denmark hopes to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Danish territory of Greenland, not Russia. Canada, meanwhile, plans to spend $7-billion to build and operate up to eight Arctic patrol ships in a bid to help protect its sovereignty.