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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ticking Time Bomb Under the Ice

For a brief moment, it seemed that Dr. Frederick Cook and U.S. Admiral Robert Peary, credited with reaching the North Pole in 1908 and 1909, respectively, had risen from the mists to renew their race to the North Pole.

On Aug. 2, a couple of Moscow legislators in a small submersible vessel deposited their nation's flag on the seabed 4.2 kilometers under the polar ice cap -- backing up Russia's claim to nearly half of the Arctic Ocean floor.

For its part, Canada announced that it plans to build two military bases to reinforce the country's territorial claims. At stake is control of the Northwest Passage and, with it, what could be huge deposits of oil and natural gas in the seabed below.

In a 21st-century twist unimaginable to Cook and Peary, global warming -- driven, in part, by humanity's profligate use of those same fossil fuels -- has begun to melt the polar ice, exposing potentially huge deposits of hitherto unreachable natural resources.

Russia and Canada are not alone in the great Arctic oil race. Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland and the United States also have a deep interest in the matter.

Under international law, nations have the rights to resources that lie up to 320 kilometers off their shores. The rest is regarded as international waters, subject to negotiation under the Law of the Sea. A nation can claim territory beyond the 320-kilometer limit, but only if it can prove that the seabed is a physical extension of its continental shelf.

To show just how crazy this could get, the Danes are spending a fortune trying to prove that their end of the same ridge -- though now detached -- was once part of Greenland, which belongs to Denmark.

The United States does not find itself in a strong position. Misplaced fears among right-wing senators about losing "sovereignty" has kept the Senate from ratifying the Law of the Sea even though the United Nations approved it 25 years ago. This, in turn, means that the United States, with 1,609 kilometer miles of coastline in the Arctic, has no seat at the negotiating table.

U.S. President George W. Bush will try to remedy this blunder when Congress reconvenes. This would at least enable Washington to stake its claims to the continental shelf extending northward from Alaska. We may never need a share of that oil, but it seems foolish not to keep it in reserve.

The comment appeared as an editorial in The New York Times.