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Russia Plants Its Flag On Arctic Expanse, Including North Pole


Russia wants a big slice of the top of the world. It's claiming huge territories in the Arctic. At least it's trying to. The country has submitted a bid to the United Nations for nearly 500,000 square miles of Arctic sea shelf. This isn't the first time Moscow has submitted a claim. It did so in 2002, and the U.N. sent it back. Here to talk to us about this is David Titley. He's a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and the founding director of their Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. Professor Titley, welcome to the program.

DAVID TITLEY: Thanks so much, Audie, for having me.

CORNISH: Why would Russia or any of these other countries want jurisdiction over Arctic seabeds? What's there?

TITLEY: Well, that's a great question as to what is there. And the real answer is, we don't know for sure. But I think Russia - and it's not only Russia, but other Arctic countries - see if there is a legal opportunity and under international law - through the Law of the Sea - this is a legal claim that if there are resources on the seabed itself or under the seabed, then why wouldn't you make a claim for that? And that's what the Russians have submitted.

CORNISH: What are the other countries that are making claims?

TITLEY: Denmark has also submitted a claim. And interestingly enough, Denmark also claims not only the North Pole, but they go clear across the pole to the Russian exclusive economic zone which is within 200 miles of the coast of Russia. Canada is widely expected also to submit a claim, and that claim likely would also encompass the North Pole.

CORNISH: Can you tell us more about this area itself? I mean, how have changes in the extent of Arctic ice affect the picture, maybe the fact that the ice is decreasing?

TITLEY: Exactly. As I'm sure many of your listeners know, the ice is both decreasing in extent, and it's a lot thinner than it used to be. Those changes are allowing all kinds of human activity that even 10 or 20 years ago we really could not have done. But the fact is, is it's easier now for humans to operate, especially in the summer and the fall, in the Arctic there. So everything from oil and natural-gas exploration, tourism, fishing, shipping - all of those types of human activities are changing very, very rapidly. And by asserting these claims to the seabed beyond 200 nautical miles from the Russian mainland, Russia's kind of staking a claim that says, hey, we're big players up here, and we intend to remain big players.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, what about the U.S.? What kind of role does it play in all of this?

TITLEY: Well, the U.S. is in an interesting case. We are one of the very few countries of the world that have not ratified or receded to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, even though the treaty was, in fact, written to lock in United States Maritime advantages. So the United States - although we have worked closely with our Canadian partners to do the survey work and to do sort of the technical scientific and oceanographic work to make a claim, we can't actually make one right now because we're not part of the treaty that the rest of the world is using. So we're kind of on the sidelines, watching what everybody else does.

CORNISH: Looking ahead, how will the U.N. committee make its decision on Russia's claim?

TITLEY: Going forward, there is frankly mind-numbing technical detail that the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf are going to have to go through to adjudicate this Russian claim. And it gets into things like, how deep is the water? How fast does the water go from shallow to deep and even things like, how deep are the sediments and the muds? All of that needs to be looked at and looked at very carefully. And at the end of the day, they will make a ruling on whether or not these Russian claims are valid.

CORNISH: David Titley is a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and the founding director of their Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

TITLEY: Thank you very much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.