As it appeared originally in Vanity Fair’s May Green issue.
On August 2, 2007, two 26-foot-long Russian submersibles, Mir-1 and Mir-2, descended through a hole in the ice at the North Pole. The Arctic, which has been losing almost 10 percent of its ice per decade since 1953, was in the middle of its biggest summer meltback on record, but the ice at the pole was still five feet thick, and the hole had to be opened by the nuclear icebreaker Rossiya. Once below the surface, the submersibles sank more than two and a half miles down, to the ocean floor.
At the helm of Mir-1 was Anatoly Sagalevich, head of the Deep Manned Submersibles Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Science’s P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology. Although they officially belonged to the academy, the two Mirs were Sagalevich’s babies. Sitting in his office in Moscow, Sagalevich recalls being inside the cockpit and watching the hole at the pole above him grow smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared.
The ships spent about eight and a half hours underwater, and 90 minutes at the bottom. Using a robotic arm attached to his submersible (“Not submarine, please,” he insists; “submarines are military”), Sagalevich collected geologic samples and planted a titanium Russian flag in the murky sediment. The pressure at this depth would have compressed him to the size of a mouse had he ventured outside. He shows me a Styrofoam cup he put out deep underwater off the coast of France two years ago, when he investigated the wreck of the Nazi battleship Bismarck. It had been shrunk to the size of a thimble.
With their mission accomplished, the two Mirs headed back to the surface. This was the trickiest part: finding the hole in the ice, which, in addition to being two-thirds frozen over, had already drifted at least a mile from where it was when they went down. The Arctic ice pack is constantly moving, at a rate of six or so miles per day. Sagalevich had to calculate not only the speed of the ice but also the effect of the currents beneath it while maneuvering the ascending submersibles.
There were other notable figures aboard the two vessels. The great polar scientist Artur Chilingarov, who also happens to be the vice-speaker of the Duma (Russia’s largely cosmetic parliament), was on Mir-1. With him was the oligarch Vladimir Gruzdev, who has an estimated net worth of $820 million. He’s in the Duma, too, but had to pay to join the expedition. Along for the mission, according to press accounts, were other paying explorers: Swedish businessman Frederik Paulsen; Ibrahim Sharaf, a sheikh from the United Arab Emirates, who wore his traditional robes under his polar suit; and Australian adventurer Mike McDowell, who paid a reported $3 million. The two submersibles were plastered with the logos of eight sponsors—the Kremlin was 100 percent behind this expedition, in every way except its funding.
The arctonauts returned to a hero’s welcome in Moscow not seen since Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, returned from outer space. The reception was cooler elsewhere in the world, especially in the four other countries with Arctic coastlines: the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark, which controls the vast territory of Greenland. “This isn’t the 15th century,” protested Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign minister. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags.” As elated as he ever allows himself to be, Vladimir Putin tried to smooth international hackles: “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I was surprised by a somewhat nervous reaction from our Canadian colleagues. Americans, at one time, planted a flag on the moon. So what? Why didn’t you worry so much? The moon did not pass in the United States’ ownership.” John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to the secretary of state, told me, “We knew they were going to the North Pole, but we didn’t know they were going to plant the flag. It was a provocative action, and took us aback.”
All this outrage may have been a bit overdone. Frederick Cook planted an American flag at what he claimed was the North Pole in 1908, and Robert Peary did the same thing a year later. Chilingarov himself was photographed at the South Pole last year with a group of American scientists and the flags of both countries.
Chilingarov wasn’t above fanning the flames of nationalism in public. In Moscow, he told a group of well-wishers, “I don’t give a damn what all these foreign politicians … are saying about this. If someone doesn’t like this, let them go down themselves and try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian.”
“It’s only natural that our dive had great patriotic impact, and of course we planted the flag, as Americans would do in a similar case,” Chilingarov told me. “I don’t understand why there is all this noise in the international community. If anyone wants to plant a flag down there, they’re welcome to. There’s plenty of room.” And Sagalevich told me, “Everybody knows now that a pure Russian crew—supported by Russian helicopters, submersibles, research vessel, icebreaker—can go to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. We know how to do it, and we can do it again.”
This “stunt fueled by a return to czarist impulses,” “coup de théâtre,” “Kremlin-sponsored act of bravado aimed at boosting national pride,” as it was variously described in the Western press, is just one of many signs that the Russian bear is once again rearing its head.
Like much of what happens on the world stage these days, this expedition—and the diplomatic flap it caused—was really about oil. By some estimates, 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves are buried under the Arctic Ocean. With the ice cap shrinking by 28,000 square miles a year, and gigantic pools of open water appearing as it splits, the possibility of getting at them is improving daily. Meanwhile, oil supplies are dwindling, and prices are rising to historic highs, making expensive oil exploration more and more worthwhile.
It all adds up to a renewed interest in the Arctic—the last large piece of non-jurisdictional real estate on the planet—which went off the screen when the Cold War ended. Now there’s a new Great Game on—the Cold Rush.
The Laws of Extraction
According to an obscure clause in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (unclos)—also called the Law of the Sea Treaty, or lost, by its critics—if you can prove that your continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical miles that signatory states with coastlines are automatically entitled to, you have sovereign rights to its oil, gas, and minerals. The Russians’ Arctic claim hinges on an underwater formation called the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs 1,240 miles from Siberia through the North Pole nearly to the juncture of Ellesmere Island (Canada’s northernmost point) and Greenland, and which Russia says is an extension of its shelf. Actually, it is claiming only half of the ridge—the half on its side of the pole. This has the rest of the world nervous. Much of Europe depends on Russia’s natural gas, and the Kremlin has already turned the faucet off once, on Ukraine, and threatened to do the same to Belarus. If it starts tapping the Arctic deposits, Russia will be back as a superpower and may become the world’s dominant energy supplier. There would then be a Fifth Russian Empire, presided over by the increasingly autocratic Putin, who has sidestepped the presidential two-term limit by making himself prime minister.
The U.S. hasn’t even signed unclos. Its ratification has been blocked for years by a few conservative Republican senators currently led by Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, who is famous for dismissing the human contribution to global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” These senators don’t want to cede an inch of American sovereignty to the U.N. and apparently find the treaty’s designation of the high seas as “the common heritage of mankind” to be intolerably Marxist. So the U.S. isn’t on the 21-country Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which will decide on Russia’s claim. It has some fancy footwork to do if it’s even going to be a player in the scramble for the Arctic.
Russia isn’t the only country whose Arctic aspirations are unnerving the Americans. Last summer, Canada’s Northwest Passage was nearly free of ice and completely navigable for a few weeks—for the first time since records have been kept. This fabled route to the Orient, which eluded Henry Hudson, Sir Francis Drake, and Martin Frobisher, and was finally navigated by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1905, would reshape global trade, being thousands of miles shorter than most currently used shipping routes, though it won’t be clear long enough to be commercially viable for at least another 15 to 20 years. Canada has claimed the passage as its internal waterway since the early 1970s, but the U.S. maintains that it is an international strait, through which any vessel, including submerged submarines gathering intelligence, has the right of “transit passage.”
Any way you look at it, Russia has the greatest legitimacy in the Arctic—geographically, historically, demographically, hydrologically (it has six major rivers that feed the Arctic Ocean, while the other countries have one or two), and, it now hopes to prove, geomorphologically and geologically. Twenty percent of the country lies above the Arctic Circle, and almost two million Russians live there today. If the world were an orange with 18 segments meeting at the top (the North Pole), roughly 8 of them would be in Russia, Canada would have 4, Denmark 2, and Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. just one apiece. Only a sliver of Alaska, on the Beaufort Sea, lies above the Arctic Circle.
The new accessibility of the Arctic’s deposits is not going to make the effort to curb global warming any easier. Ironically, fossil-fuel emissions are making more fossil fuel available. It’s as if someone on the verge of bankruptcy were suddenly to get a huge inheritance from a distant relative he didn’t even know. Compounding this vicious circle is another feedback loop that is making the top of the planet warm twice as fast as anywhere else: as more bare land and open water are exposed by melting, more solar heat is absorbed instead of being reflected back by white ice and snow. With global warming already stressing the Arctic’s animals and its million or so indigenous people, its newfound wealth could be the coup de grâce.
The Sheraton Palace Hotel Moscow is full of American businessmen. Million-dollar deals are being discussed in hushed tones in the bar. There is serious money to be made in this country. One of the businessmen, who is building a chemical plant in Siberia to purify locally mined silicon so it can be used in solar panels, tells me, “It’s going to cost so much to get the oil in the Arctic out that they will need partners.” Gazprom, Russia’s energy parastatal, is already partnering with France’s Total and the Norwegian energy giant Statoil, in the Shtokman Field, just over the Russian border with Norway. Russia doesn’t have the sophisticated technology to tap the huge deposits of natural gas below the seafloor, or the estimated $20 to $30 billion it will cost, and the partners do.
I catch a cab to the Russian Institute of Geography, which is on a side street in Old Moscow, in a building that used to be a poorhouse during the time of Ivan the Terrible and whose ratty décor is still U.S.S.R. circa l960. Nikolai Osokin, a glaciologist who has been studying the Arctic’s shifting ice for 45 years and is an authority on its fossil-fuel deposits, shows me the line that Stalin drew from Murmansk to the pole to the middle of the Bering Sea in l926, which he declared to be the limits of the Russian Arctic. It is still in post-Soviet atlases, and no one, Osokin says, has ever disputed it. Canada had similarly defined its Arctic territory, shooting lines from its eastern- and westernmost points to the pole a year earlier. “Traditionally, all the Arctic countries mention their own sectors,” Osokin says. “Only in the last 10 years is the discussion about unfairness of definition of sectors.” This is how the seven countries with claims in Antarctica divvied up the continent in l959, agreeing not to use their sectors for military purposes or to exploit their resources until 2048. (The claims had been asserted in the first half of the 20th century, beginning with Britain—on the basis of its disputed ownership of the Falkland Islands and its explorations, going back to Captain John Strong in 1690—and followed by France, Norway, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand.)
Many feel the best thing for the Arctic would be a similar arrangement. The ships that pass through the Arctic Ocean could be taxed by an international body, and the proceeds could be used to help the indigenous people and wildlife, whose eco-system and livelihoods are melting from under them.
Osokin unfolds a map of the Arctic sea bottom. “The Russian shelf goes out much further than 200 nautical miles not because of Russian greediness but geological reality,” he says. “The currently accepted edge of the Russian shelf goes a little more than halfway to the pole, but the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges and the Podvodnikov and Makarov Basins [other, parallel-running features] extend the territory to the pole and from the pole in lines to Murmansk and the eastern coast of Chukotka—just like Stalin’s boundary.” In fact, with the 200 miles of shelf that its northernmost archipelagoes are entitled to, Russia already has the right to almost all that it is claiming in this new submission.
How do you know there is so much oil there?, I ask. “Seismic profiles establish that at the bottom of the North Ice Sea is a large amount of oil-bearing structures analogous to the structures of western Siberia that formed 38 million years ago, when the Arctic Ocean was beginning to be formed,” Osokin assures me. Then he drops something of a bombshell: “But the interest in the oil will soon be decreasing, because of new information that global warming is almost over, and the Arctic ice pack will soon be refreezing.”
Say what? What about all the information from Western scientists that the ice pack has been losing almost 10 percent of its ice per decade over the last 50 years, that this year open sea the combined size of California and Texas was exposed, and that the Arctic could have an entirely ice-free summer as early as 2040?
“There is no evidence that the warming is going to continue,” he maintains. “In fact, some of our meteorological stations on the eastern-Siberian coast have been registering colder temperatures since l995. The Holocene interglacial warm period has been going on for 11,000 years, already longer than any previous one. Its end is overdue.”
This, I will learn after talking with half a dozen other scientists in Moscow, is the Russian party line: it is starting to get colder, and the effect of human CO2 emissions on the world’s climate is negligible.
It’s true that the Arctic ice pack, expanding and contracting seasonally and in response to a multiplicity of natural rhythms, is, in Newsweek’s phrase, “a notorious shapeshifter.” The now ice-capped southern tip of Greenland had thriving boreal forest, with spruce, pine, alder, and yew, 450,000 years ago. Four to eight thousand years ago, willows, birches, roses, and heaths—tundra plants—were growing on the northern tip of Sweden’s Svalbard Islands, which are now covered with ice. Even in the l930s, the Russian Arctic was warmer than it is today, and the Great North Way, along its coast from Murmansk to the Bering Sea, was completely open. And this summer’s record meltback, a recent paper in Nature argues, was the result not only of man-made global warming but also of the cyclical north-south shift in the energy in the Arctic’s atmosphere, which Osokin told me about.
The global climate is a complex interactive system, with all kinds of nonlinear feedback loops. According to Robert Corell—a climate scientist at the Heinz Center, in Washington, D.C., who chaired the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment on how the poles are being affected by climate change—the last 10,000 years have been the most stable period in the climatic record, with a temperature range that was ideal for humanity to flourish. But now, he says, we’re moving out of “the sweet spot.” The vertiginous “hockey stick” rise in mean global temperature since 1970 is something that can be explained by only one thing, a powerful new force in the climate system: us. According to the 737 scientists and other experts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, our contribution actually began to kick in around l750, at the beginning of industrialization (also when our population began to take off). There’s a less than 10 percent chance the current warming trend could be natural.
With the Polar Year in full swing, no fewer than 200 expeditions with scientists from 60 countries are collecting baseline data in the Arctic. Every week brings a new study about the breakdown of another component of the eco-system. So why are the Russian scientists saying it’s getting colder? Michael MacCracken, a Washington, D.C.–based climate scientist and policy expert, explains that Russian climate science is based on paleoclimatic reconstruction and is hierarchical. You adopt the position of the head of your institute, and the Russian Academy of Science’s chief climatologist, Yuri Izrael, maintains that it’s getting colder and the human contribution is negligible. Western climate science, however, is based on modeling what is happening now and where it’s going, and is confrontational. The scientists are always challenging one another’s findings. Corell goes as far as to accuse Russian climate science of being dictated by conservative Russian politicians, “who don’t want the warming to stop, because it will open up the Great North Way again and make Russia the maritime power it has always wanted to be.”
But outside the walls of academe, the native people of the Russian Arctic, who are living with what is happening, will tell me a very different story.
Awakening the Spirits of the Underworld
I fly to Yakutsk, in far-eastern Siberia, six time zones ahead of Moscow. Yakutsk is the capital of Yakutia, or, more correctly, the Sakha Autonomous Republic, which is as big as India but has only a million people, instead of a billion. In that region, the permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen soil that covers as much as 25 percent of the earth’s land, is the deepest in the world, a mile and a half thick in the Viliui River basin. The Lomonosov Ridge shoots off to the pole from close to the New Siberian Islands, in the Laptev Sea, above Yakutia. The coldest confirmed temperature in the Northern Hemisphere—minus 67.8 degrees Celsius—was recorded in Verkhoyansk, which is also the oldest European settlement in the Arctic. I want to go there and look for mammoth tusks that are being heaved up by the melting permafrost, a welcome development for the again-flourishing ivory market. Woolly mammoths were hairy pachyderms that died out during the last big warming event, 10,000 years ago. Their tusks, nearly circular (while those of modern elephants have a more gradual curve), are also made of ivory, and are turning up with increasing frequency in Hong Kong and in mainland China.
I also want to meet some of the Yakut horse breeders, whose traditional lifestyle is being threatened by the great thaw. They and the other native people of the Yakut Arctic—the Yukaghir and the Eveny and Evenki reindeer herders—have powerful shamans, although only a handful are left. Some are said to be able to drum themselves into a trance and become winged reindeer, flying up into the sky to see where the game is.
The shamans have been persecuted since czarist times, as devil worshippers by the Orthodox priests, and as enemies of the people by the Soviets, who threw them out of helicopters, saying, “You want to fly? Here’s your chance.” Animism is the main religion in Yakutia. Three-quarters of the people still live close to nature, attuned to the animals and plants, and are acutely aware of the changes that are occurring because of the mild temperatures.
You don’t have to be a shaman to see what is happening to the tundra; it’s visible from the plane window. The tundra is pitted with circular depressions known as “alases.” Some of them are filled with water from the thawing permafrost; some are empty craters from which the meltwater has drained as it found new exits in the iceless soil. The “thermokarst lakes,” as the water-filled ones are called, are bubbling with methane that had been trapped in the ice. Methane is at least 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. (The Siberian permafrost zone alone contains an estimated 500 gigatons of carbon. The entire annual human output is about five and a half gigatons.)
No one knows how much methane is being released, because we don’t yet have the capability for “spot” measurement, Corell tells me. But it’s a ticking time bomb, enough to turn the world into a cauldron, should it all get into the atmosphere.
Only about 10 percent of Yakutia, however, is methane-emitting tundra. Most of it is taiga, forest dominated by larch trees, which are taking carbon out of the atmosphere, so the tundra and the taiga more or less balance each other out. The taiga is spreading north with the rising temperature, pushing the tundra to the edge of the Laptev Sea, forcing migrating cranes and geese to relocate their historic summer nesting sites. “Drunken forests,” whose trees slant every which way, because the roots have lost their purchase in the liquefying, buckling soil, are becoming increasingly common.
Thirty percent of Yakutia’s economy comes from diamond mining. The republic is practically a private fiefdom of Alrosa, the world’s second-largest diamond company (after De Beers), which was nationalized by Putin last year. Yakutia’s president was also once the president of Alrosa. Most of the mining is done around Mirny, where there are rich seams of diamond-bearing kimberlite, and where the biggest man-made hole on earth has been gouged. Yakutsk is a wide-open, incredibly wealthy frontier town. A travel blog says that one of the hotels offers “armoured rooms” and that it’s dangerous to eat in the restaurants because of the presence of diamond mafiosi.
The city of nearly a quarter-million is celebrating its 370th birthday. Most of the buildings are four-story barracks-like concrete apartment houses, but here and there one of the centuries-old, elaborately stenciled log isbas still stands. Some of them have been tilted at rakish angles by normal, seasonal frost heaving over the years. The new buildings are constructed on pilings sunk 50 feet down, so they’re stable. The buckling wreaks havoc with Yakutia’s roads and railroads and is undoubtedly getting more severe with the warming. If it cracks the 2,500-mile oil pipeline that’s being built from western Siberia to the Pacific, there will be an ecological disaster. There’s already a lot of radioactive and otherwise toxic waste from the mining of gold, uranium, diamonds, and practically every other mineral from antimony to zinc.
I visit the Permafrost Research Institute, the world’s only one. First I am taken down to the dug but not sided basement by a guide named Pavel. The ceiling is coated with sparkling hexagonal ice crystals. Pavel points out where the active layer, the part that thaws and refreezes every year, stops—five and a half feet underground, in the middle of the basement walls. Below it the soil is frozen solid for a thousand feet. He says the active layer hasn’t gotten any thicker in the last 10 or 20 years. There’s a plaster cast of Dima, an almost intact 39,000-year-old baby mammoth that was found in the late 70s. Recently an even better-preserved, 37,000-year-old baby mammoth, with possibly enough intact DNA to enable it to be cloned, with a modern elephant as its mother, was found on the Yamal Peninsula, west of Yakutia.
The Eveny and Evenki people (same way of life, different linguistic heritage) have been relying for centuries on reindeer (known in the Nearctic as caribou), which provide transport, food, shelter, and clothing. There are still a few thousand nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia, moving with their animals in the largest territory of any remaining traditional people. But the wild and domesticated reindeer have been experiencing massive die-offs in the spring and fall, I’m told by Eveny and Evenki activists. Reindeer eat mainly lichen, and now when the seasons change there is more rain that freezes at night, often with melted snow, into a sheet of ice that the reindeer can’t break through with their hooves, so entire herds are starving to death.
Vyacheslav Shadrin, the head of the council of Yukaghir elders, tells me that in the Upper Kolyma basin, 700 miles north of Yakutsk, where he is from, last November and December, when it is normally minus 40 degrees Celsius (also Fahrenheit—Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at 40 below), it rained. That means it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. The Yukaghir are one of the oldest aboriginal peoples of Siberia. There are only 1,509 of them left, as of the last census, and only 23 who still speak the language fluently. They are a culture on the way out, unless something is done fast to keep it going.
The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir are hunters and fishermen whose main source of income is trapping sable. “Usually in one season a hunter can get 20 to 25 pelts, half of them in the middle of October, when the sables all go to their winter hunting ground,” Shadrin says. “By then the snow comes thick and the lakes are frozen and the hunters can go out to the winter routes on snowmobiles. But now it’s no longer safe to go out until mid-November, because the snowmobiles can fall through the ice, so the hunters are losing the most important month and a half for their income.
“Every year the pasture for the wild reindeer, which the Yukaghir hunt, is getting less and less because the taiga is coming up from the south,” Shadrin goes on. “Grasses, birches, and some bushes like willow are covering the lichen. And the reindeer no longer come to their traditional river crossings, which is the best place to kill them. The hunters no longer know where they are going to be, so they lose time and are less successful.
“The quantity of wolves is growing,” he says. “Before, we used to have only tundra wolves. Now we’re getting taiga wolves, too, which run in bigger packs. The wolves kill many reindeer and give trouble to the herders. So for all these reasons, both wild and domestic reindeer are disappearing. Also, geese and sea ducks have changed their migratory routes and schedules. Hunters used to wait for them where they rested at night in the beginning of June; now they don’t know what time to go. Last few years the waterfowl have been appearing in very small quantity. They must have changed their route to another river basin. Trapping polar foxes was a big part of our traditional life, but in the last 10 or 15 years there have hardly been any. No one knows why.
“Now the runoff from the breakup of the ice and snow is greater, every spring water comes more, and there is more danger from flooding and erosion to our villages, which are all on the riverbanks. At the same time, some of our best lakes for fishing are disappearing.” These must be thermokarst lakes being drained by new subterranean streams in the thawing permafrost.
Shadrin continues: “Polar bears are coming into Cherskiy [a town near the mouth of the Kolyma River]. Usually at the end of summer, when the ice pack is melting, the pregnant bears come to the land to have their cubs, and afterward, with the small bears, they return to the ice and spend the winter hunting seals. The ice used to be a short swim from the shore, but now it is very far away. The bears cannot even see it, so they stay onshore and try to find food around the places where people live.” By some estimates, as many as half of the world’s remaining polar bears may be in Russia.
What are the old people saying about these changes?, I ask. “They’re saying nature is lying to the people,” Shadrin says. “It is not respecting them, because the people are doing many bad things, killing many animals, cutting many forests, many plants, dirtying rivers and lakes. They forget that they live in a natural world and are not respecting old traditions, so nature is returning to people their bad actions. One of the results of the melting is that too many mammoth bones appear on the land and people are collecting them, but in our tradition the mammoth is the spirit of the underworld and we can’t take their bones. So the elders are saying we have awakened these underworld spirits. The main thesis of our traditional view is: Don’t take from nature more than you need; if you take more, you are not respecting nature. But all our economic basis now is to take more and more.”
An Unwelcome Warming
I fly up to Verkhoyansk in an old Antonov An-24, a no-nonsense piece of Soviet machinery. I’m the only non-Asian on the plane. Below is the Lena River, the world’s 10th-longest, and the largest river you’ve never heard of. In another two months it will be frozen 15 feet thick and will become a highway for trucks and jeeps. We fly over the snow-covered Verkhoyansk Range and touch down at Batagay, a charmless outpost of three-story barracks built in the 1930s. It’s raining and overcast. The next five days will be like being in a grainy black-and-white movie. My driver Sergei and I set out down a road built by gulag prisoners through the endless expanse of golden larch. This was the gulag heartland. The camps had no walls, because escape was impossible; there was nowhere to escape to.
There has been terrible flooding in the last few years. The worst flood in living memory was in 2004. We come to a washed-out bridge, where I have to change cars to complete the trip.
A cozy burg of l,800 which has been having a rough time since the end of Soviet subsidizing of remote rural communities, Verkhoyansk was founded in 1638 by Cossacks sent out by Czar Mikhail I to conquer the surrounding region. It’s on the Yana River, which flows into the Laptev Sea, and is older than St. Petersburg. Many early explorers, including Vitus Bering in the early 18th century, passed through here. “The prisoners did a lot for our town,” the mayor, Pyotor Gabyshev, tells me. “They introduced potatoes and cucumbers. One of them did the first ethnography of the Yakut, which the Yakut themselves, who have forgotten many of their ceremonies, now consult. They built a meteorological station, which in 1892 recorded the temperature of minus 67.8 Celsius. But now even 55 below has become very rare. Before, it would drizzle for 10 days straight. Now there are hard rains, which are more destructive. People are hunting for freshly exposed mammoth bones for extra income.” He gives me a certificate stating that I have been to the Pole of Cold.
The next morning I go to a camp of traditional Yakut horse breeders. The Yakut, or Sakha, were mounted warriors who arrived a few centuries before the Cossacks and conquered the reindeer herders and the Yukaghir, and were in turn subjugated by the Cossacks.
Driving back to the washed-out bridge, we stop to make offerings at a shamanic place, a dead larch tree draped in prayer flags like Tibetan Buddhist shrines, its base strewn with cucumbers, coins, cigarettes, candy. The tree is a unifying element in Yakut cosmology. Its branches reach to the nine upper levels of the heavens, its trunk is in middle earth, where we and the animals live, and its roots are in the eight-layered Lower World. Each of us has three souls—a mother soul, earth soul, and air soul—and several years after you die the first two reincarnate and are infused with a new air soul, unless you were a bad person, in which case you are buried facedown and are not reborn.
We turn up a road that leads to an abandoned prison camp called Ustakh, a cluster of log cabins with a caved-in log church. Some of the prisoners had been there so long that when they were released they didn’t know where to go and just hung around, working as woodcutters. The last of them died two years ago.
The horse-breeding camp is 15 minutes down the Yana by motorboat, then a 15-minute slog through the muddy taiga. There are three huts with flat tops and slanted walls, where two breeders, three haymakers, and an old man who is supposed to have clairvoyant powers are living and taking care of 130 horses—the hardy native Yana-Indigirka breed, which is thought to be close to the original horse. Everyone is feasting on Arctic hares and tuganok, small white fish from the river. Braces of freshly shot white hares hang from the rafters. This is the time of year when every able-bodied person in the region is hunting hares. I will eat almost nothing my whole time in the Arctic but hare and sour cream so thick you can stand a spoon in it.
There is a local cycle of 10 years of rain, followed by 10 dry years, the old man, whose name is Zachar, tells me. We are in the fifth year of the rainy cycle. Spring is coming weeks earlier, and winter weeks later, Zachar says. Strange birds are appearing, ones that have never been seen in the region, and a little deer called the kosulya has just shown up from central Yakutia. “I don’t know where the cold has gone. Maybe to the other side of the planet, where you live.” Afraid not, I say. In another month these six men will be on their own, living on pike, duck, and moose. “This is a dying way of life,” Leonid, who owns the herd, tells me. “It’s hard to find strong young men who are willing to spend the winter in such isolation anymore.”
On the way back to the river, we see, sitting on a pond in a bog, one of the ducks that weren’t here before, a gray selezen, with greenish tail feathers. All kinds of animals and plants are moving up into Yakutia, whose biodiversity has increased across the board except for reptiles and amphibians. If this seems like a silver lining, it is not good news for the Arctic species. And while the active permafrost layer may not be getting any deeper, after a few days of steady rain it has become a muddy soup. Our jeep gets stuck and it takes an hour of prying with pine logs to get it out.
Betenkes, a farm community on the bank of the Adycha River, which I reach by nightfall, is the muddiest place I have ever been. It can flood so badly in the spring, the old woman I’m staying with tells me, that the water comes up to the windows of the houses, even though they’re built on five-foot pilings, and the only way to get around is by motorboat.
In the morning we head down the extravagantly meandering Yana in a motorboat until we come to where the river is maybe half a mile wide and the gently curving bank rises from 20 feet high to more than 100 for a mile and a half. The place is called Ulakhan Suullur and is a famous cemetery for mammoths and other Pleistocene mega-fauna, including woolly rhinos, musk oxen, and cave lions. The most popular theory is that it was a swamp thousands of years ago when the last ice age was coming to an end, and the big mammals got stuck in its mud. The mammoth was basically done in by climate change. The last ones survived on Wrangel Island, north of Chukotka, until 3,700 years ago. According to Eveny mythology, mammoths scooped up dirt with their tusks to form the first dry land.
A steady, fine rain is sifting down, eating away at the khaki-gray sandy loam of the bank. On the top of it, larch trees are teetering and toppling into the river. Every 15 minutes there is a thunderous avalanche of slumping silt, and every hundred yards, as I walk the bank, there is a gully, cut by rainwater running down to the river. The silt in the deltas at the bottom of these gullies is so fine it is like quicksand. I sink up to my thigh trying to cross one. It’s not hard to imagine huge animals getting inextricably stuck.
Two fishermen, on the way home with a sack full of 20-pound taimens, pull up. One of them spots a fresh yellow bone sticking out halfway up the bank and climbs up to get it. It’s not a mammoth tusk, but the femur of a giant deer or horse. It’s still heavy, having just been washed out of the solid wall of fossil ice—with ancient carcasses frozen in it like flies in amber—that is visible in places where the bank has just collapsed. The bank and the bone-filled permafrost behind it are undergoing active, rapid disintegration. Face-to-face with such a vast slice of time, my individual life seems like a mote, not even a hiccup. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors who roamed the earth 10,000 years ago hunted these massive mammals, but we were still very low on the totem pole. We’ve come a very long way in just the last 10,000 years—maybe to the end.
One of the scariest parts of the Arctic meltdown, which only a few scientists are talking about, is that some 40,000-year-old Ebola or anthrax-like virus that we have no resistance to could be lurking in the carcass of one of these long-extinct creatures that are being coughed up. That’s one way nature deals with species whose population has gotten out of hand. A 300-year-old Yakut man’s skeleton was recently disgorged by the melting permafrost near Yakutsk; he could have died of smallpox. There was a big epidemic in Yakutia around then, introduced by the Cossacks. So we could see the return of smallpox. In the first half of the 20th century, a hundred thousand reindeer a year died of anthrax on the Yamal Peninsula. The spores lie dormant in the soil and periodically break out. More than 10,000 foci of anthrax have been registered in Russia in the last hundred years. In Greenland, RNA from the tomato mosaic tobamovirus was recently detected in 140,000-year-old ice, and a host of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, green algae, cyanobacteria, and mosses are coming up from columns that are being drilled in three-million-year-old ice at the mouth of the Kolyma. So maybe the Yukaghir’s belief that the mammoths are going to take their revenge for what we are doing to nature isn’t so far-fetched.
Back at Batagay airport, I share a bottle of vodka with three licensed mammoth-tusk dealers. A pair of tusks in good condition can fetch $35,000, so the melting permafrost has spawned a new, opportunistic cottage industry. The airstrip is too muddy for landing or takeoff, so my plane to Yakutsk is delayed, as is the helicopter the dealers have chartered to fly them to a village on the Sartan River, where one of their diggers has found a 130-pound tusk. The dealers employ 10 diggers and five craftsmen in Yakutsk who carve the tusks, and they move 3.5 tons of ivory a year. One ton goes to their craftsmen, and the rest ends up in Hong Kong, to be carved along with the tusks of poached African elephants. The Chinese nouveaux riches, already as numerous as the entire population of Japan, are clamoring for ivory statuary.
Most of the bones from around Cherskiy, in the Lena Delta, end up at the History of the Ice Age Museum-Theatre, in Moscow, which is part of the National Alliance, a private business owned by the oligarch Fyodor Shidlovsky. The National Alliance has a government license to excavate and export prehistoric relics. Museums and private collectors in the U.S. and Korea are paying as much as $250,000 for a reconstructed mammoth skeleton, $20,000 for a well-preserved tusk.
The Common Heritage of Mankind
Back in Moscow, I visit Yuri Leonov, the director of the Russian Academy of Science’s Geological Institute, who is analyzing the samples that Sagalevich brought back from the floor of the Arctic Ocean. It doesn’t look like they have proof that the Lomonosov Ridge is part of the Russian continental shelf. “These probes were insufficient,” Leonov tells me, “but Russia does have some scientific data in favor of this claim. The geological evidence that Lomonosov Ridge is part of the Russian continental shelf is not an easy question We can say that this is not just a ridge, but part of a whole system from Russia to Greenland and Canada The Arctic is a shallow epicontinental sea on a continental base. Most of the bottom has more characteristics of earth crust than ocean floor. The Lomonosov Ridge used to connect Russia, Canada, and Denmark 20 to 30 million years ago, but due to some process we do not understand for the moment very well, this bridge collapsed at roughly the 30th meridian of north latitude, and sank to its present depth, 15,000 feet at the pole. So we cannot call this a bridge anymore. The question is whether the commission will accept a paleo shelf as a shelf. I hope I don’t get into trouble for saying this, but I think it would be smart for Canada to accept our claim, because it would only strengthen theirs. From point of view of oil and gas, the bottom of the pole is not important, because almost all of deposits in Russian Arctic are within 200 miles of coast.”
I pay a call on Pyotr Aleshkovsky, a writer and intellectual, who is skeptical about the estimate that 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil fuel lies beneath the Arctic Ocean (a figure attributed to the U.S. Geological Survey—though it denies ever having put it out—which has taken on a life of its own in the media and even among scientists). “There’s a lot of oil in Evenkia—an autonomous republic in western Siberia—that they haven’t even started to drill,” Aleshkovsky tells me. And what about the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, which are supposed to have 65 percent, and in the upper Orinoco of Venezuela, which supposedly has 25 percent? He’s right: the figures don’t add up. In fact, it’s more like 14 percent, if that.
A geologist who works for an American oil company estimating oil reserves in the North Sea will explain to me a few months later that “oil reserves are a made-up number, and there’s an incentive to make it as large as you can. If the oil price goes up, there are more reserves, because it becomes more economically worthwhile to drill for them. It’s a real black art.”
I meet with Vasiliy Gutsulyak at a sushi restaurant near the Center of Maritime Law, in Moscow, of which he is the director. “There is no maritime law in the Arctic,” he tells me. Until very recently the deep ocean—more than 600 feet deep—which makes up 90 percent of the world’s oceans, was considered as the high seas. Piracy was common. England got rich by preying on the Spanish galleons bringing bullion back from the New World. The coastal states’ territorial sea extended only 3 nautical miles, as far as a cannonball shot, until the Law of the Sea Treaty extended it to 12 miles in 1982; the treaty also granted to its signatories 200 miles of their continental shelf as an E.E.Z. (exclusive economic zone). Russia applied for an extension of its shelf in 2001—claiming the same shelf area that it is preparing to reclaim—but the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf requested more information.
John Bellinger, the State Department’s chief legal counsel, who is spearheading Condoleezza Rice’s push to get unclos ratified in the Senate, tells me that the conservative congressmen opposing it are laboring under two misconceptions. The first is the notion that the characterization of the high seas, the part of the ocean that is beyond anyone’s E.C.S. (extended continental shelf), as “the common heritage of mankind” came from Elisabeth Mann Borgese, a Canadian socialist and alleged admirer of Karl Marx. Although she was one of unclos’s main original supporters, the phrase actually came from a speech by Richard Nixon, who declared in a farsighted moment on May 23, l970, “I am today proposing that all nations adopt as soon as possible a treaty under which they would renounce all national claims over the natural resources of the seabed beyond the point where the high seas reach a depth of 200 meters, and would agree to regard these resources as the common heritage of mankind.”
“The other misconception,” Bellinger continues, “is that signing unclos would be ‘a vast giveaway of American sovereignty’ to the U.N. The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is not a U.N. agency, and ratifying the treaty would, in fact, give the U.S. its biggest increase in territory since the Louisiana Purchase. Three sonic-probing missions by the Coast Guard cutter Healy have determined that America’s Arctic shelf could potentially be the size of three Californias, and could extend 600 miles further out than the 200-mile limit. But our extended shelf needs international blessing, because no banks will be willing to put money into [oil-drilling] ventures in such legally murky waters,” he explains.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is treading a fine line, trying to have it both ways. It claims 200 miles of its shelf by “customary law”—citing unclos, which it hasn’t ratified—but it won’t acknowledge Canada’s claim that its Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, even though it threads through thousands of islands in the Canadian Arctic. The American position is that it’s an international strait, which is defined as a waterway that connects high seas or E.E.Z.’s. At stake is the right of “transit passage.” “Foreign submarines are permitted to remain submerged in a strait, but they have to come to the surface in an internal waterway, and there are a hundred straits in the world, so the Department of Defense regards the guarantee of free passage to naval and commercial vessels as the crown jewel of the Law of the Sea Convention,” Bellinger tells me.
“In 2001 we inherited 100 or so treaties that had not been ratified from the Clinton administration.” (Basically, the U.S. doesn’t ratify anything that cramps its style. It has still not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which Russia has, and Russia doesn’t recognize the human contribution to global warming.) “The problem with unclos was that the deep-seabed part, Part XI, was flawed. The landlocked countries, feeling left out of the original treaty, had eked out an income-distribution and mandatory-technology-transfer clause. If the big countries can go and mine in the deep seabed, they should transfer the technology to the less developed countries and share the profits with the landlocked ones. Reagan refused to sign the treaty because he thought this section was too socialistic. There was a renegotiation in l994. The technology transfer was stripped out, the income re-distribution was changed, the U.S. got a permanent seat on the Council of the International Seabed Authority, and the application fee for mining seabed was knocked down from a million to $250,000. But still, unclos languished because the political will wasn’t there.”
Bellinger continues: “After lengthy review, this administration concluded in 2004 that it’s in the interest of the U.S. that the treaty be ratified, but only this year [2007, starting with a statement released by the White House in May] has there been a big push. The navy wants it. So do Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, two Alaska senators, the environmentalists, Alaskan fisherman, and fiber-optic-cable companies like Verizon, who can lay their lines in E.E.Z.’s. Even the stalwart Republican [senator] John Warner is for it. What else can you think of that so many disparate parties all agree on? We think we’ve got the votes—67 at this point—and will bring it to the Senate floor in December.”
But as of mid-March, this still hasn’t happened. unclos is back in limbo. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, is not going to take up something so contentious unless he is sure the votes are there, and this being an election year, the conservatives are ramping up the invective, and unclos, with what they believe to be its hidden Communist agenda, is one of their favorite whipping boys. Even John McCain, who in 1998 urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to support the treaty, has flip-flopped and opposes its ratification.
As for Russia’s claim, Bellinger tells me, “we’re not happy about it, but we don’t have a basis to have a position.” Privately, the U.S. is perhaps not so averse to Russia getting its shelf extended, so America can get in on the action. “All kinds of deals are being made behind the scenes,” a Washington insider told me. “Bush would much rather get his energy from Putin than have to deal with the madness of the Middle East.”
Last fall the first project to tap Arctic oil and gas deposits, 90 miles off the coast of Norway and 340 miles above the Arctic Circle, came on line. It’s called Snøhvit, Norwegian for “Snow White.” All the production equipment is on the ocean floor, so the drifting ice is not a problem, and the wellhead links by 89 miles of pipe to a small island just off Hammerfest. There the gas is cooled to 325 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, shrinking its volume by 99.8 percent and turning it into liquid that can be shipped in tankers. Norway is about to launch an oil-drilling ship it has developed that can withstand the movement of the ice.
So, as technology keeps improving, the price of oil keeps rising, and the ice keeps melting, Arctic energy is bound to be an increasingly bigger part of the global mix.
Antarctica is held up as the model of international cooperation in the administration of our fragile and all-important polar regions. Fifty years ago it was the scene of a similar showdown among Britain, France, Argentina, Chile, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia, each of which had asserted claims to the continent. It ended with the seven countries—and five others, including the U.S.—signing a treaty that divided the continent into sectors and forbade nuclear tests, military deployment, the dumping of radioactive waste, and the exploitation of any resources until 2048. So the news, late last year, that Britain was drawing up a submission claiming 386,000 square miles of seabed off northwestern Antarctica—which seismic tests suggest could contain 60 billion barrels of oil—as an extension of its sector’s continental shelf took the international community even more aback than Russia’s flag planting two months before. The territory is disputed by Chile and Argentina, who are sure to submit counterclaims, and the U.S. has made it clear that it will hold Britain in violation of the Antarctic Treaty. Bellinger doubted that the Brits were going to go through with the submission. “If they do put in a claim, they will do it only notionally, as a placeholder.”
But this is only one of Britain’s five proposed shelf extensions, and nine other countries have submissions in the works which will affect the status of 2.7 million square miles of sea bottom—an area roughly the size of Australia. Canada is hastening to map its answer to the Lomonosov Ridge: the Alpha Ridge, a 1,300-mile-long submerged chain of rugged peaks and deep canyons that starts at Ellesmere Island and goes through the North Pole, possibly all the way to the Russian Arctic coast. The ocean floor, particularly at the poles, is the new frontier of real-estate speculation, territorial expansion, and resource replenishment. What the Russians kicked off is just the tip of the iceberg.