Danish scientists head for the Arctic ice pack on Sunday seeking evidence to position Denmark in the race to claim the potentially vast oil and other resources of the North Pole region.
Canada has been making its own moves to strengthen its territorial claims in the Arctic, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper announcing northern initiatives on a three-day swing through the region this week that was set to wrap up Friday.
The monthlong Danish expedition will seek evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 2,000-kilometre underwater mountain range, is attached to the Danish territory of Greenland, making it a geological extension of the Arctic island.
That might allow the Nordic country to stake a claim under a United Nations treaty that could stretch all the way the North Pole, although Canada and Russia also claim the ridge.
"The preliminary investigations done so far are very promising," Helge Sander, Denmark's minister of science, technology and innovation told Denmark's TV2 on Thursday. "There are things suggesting that Denmark could be given the North Pole."
The Danes plan to set off from Norway's remote Arctic islands of Svalbard aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden, which will be assisted by a powerful Russian nuclear icebreaker to plow through ice as thick as five metres north of Greenland.
"No one has ever sailed in that area. Ships have sailed on the edges of the ice but no one has been in there," expedition leader Christian Marcussen of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland said in Copenhagen. "The challenge for us will be the ice."
The team includes 40 scientists, 10 of them Danish, and the crews of the icebreakers, which will use sophisticated equipment, including sonar, to map the seabed under the ice.
"We will be collecting data for a possible (sovereignty) demand," Marcussen said. "It is not our duty to formulate a demand of ownership."
A team of Swedish researchers studying glacial history in the Arctic is also part of the expedition.
Canada, the United States, Russia and Norway have competing claims in the vast Arctic region, where a U.S. study suggests as 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden.
Russia sent two small submarines to plant a tiny national flag under the North Pole two weeks ago, a move Canada ridiculed.
"The Russians sent a submarine to drop a small flag at the bottom of the ocean. We're sending our prime minister to reassert Canadian sovereignty," said one senior government official earlier this week as Harper was set to begin his northern swing.
The race for sovereignty in the Arctic is heating up partly because global warming is shrinking the polar ice, which could someday open up resource development and new shipping lanes.
The pressure is also on the Arctic nations because of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gives them 10 years after ratification to prove their claims under the largely uncharted polar ice-pack. All but the United States have ratified the treaty.
"The Russians, Canadians and Danes all have overlapping claims in the polar region. It is unclear how this can be resolved," said maritime law expert Oeystein Jensen, of Oslo's Fridtjof Nansen's Institute. "There is a lot of prestige and vast resources at stake."
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