SEATTLE – A U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker is headed to the Arctic to map the sea floor off Alaska, as Russia, Denmark and Canada assert their claims in the polar region, which has potential oil and gas reserves.
The lead scientist on the expedition scoffs at the political implications.
"We're basically just doing science," said Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. "There's no flag-dropping on this trip," he said in an interview from Durham, N.H.
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The Healy left Puget Sound last Monday and should be in Barrow around Aug. 17, said Russ Tippets, a spokesman at the Coast Guard Pacific area office in San Francisco.
Mayer will meet the Seattle-based icebreaker Healy at Barrow, Alaska, and head about 500 miles north with a team of about 20 scientists to map an area known as the Chukchi Cap.
Russian media assert that the Healy's mission signals that the United States, along with Canada, is actively joining the competition for resources in the Arctic.
Melting ice could open water for drilling or create the long-sought Northwest Passage for shipping.
A Russian submarine dropped that nation's flag Aug. 2 on the floor of the Arctic Ocean under the North Pole.
Mayer denied the reports.
"We've had this trip planned for months, and it has nothing to do with the Russians planting their flag," he said.
The 7-year-old Healy is the nation's newest icebreaker. It's 420 feet long and is capable of breaking ice 8 feet thick. Its mission will last a couple of months, and it is due back in Seattle in early October, said spokesman Stephen Elliott.
The purpose of the mapping work aboard the Healy is to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska, Mayer said. It's not a claim, he said, but a process of registering boundary information with the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
"In that area, the country would have rights over the resources of the sea floor and subsurface that would include drilling for oil and gas," he said.
The mapping is conducted with an echo sounder, something that's difficult to hear when a ship is crunching through the ice, Mayer said. This is the third such mapping trip. The others were in 2003 and 2004.
There will be about 20 scientists on board the Healy with the crew, including representatives from the University of New Hampshire, University of Texas, University of Alaska, the National Ice Center in Suitland, Md., Scripps Institution, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and State Department, he said.
The State Department says its official is a geographer and member of an extended continental shelf task force.
"While a significant technological achievement, the planting of the Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole has no legal effect and did not prompt the participation of the State Department expert in the Healy cruise," said spokeswoman Nicole Thompson.