The work is heating up as more areas become ice free, exposing vast potential mineral and gas deposits, and filing deadlines loom under the international Law of the Sea agreement. Information about the evolution of underwater terrains, and whether they are or were at one time attached to certain landmasses, may help determine whether some nations can claim areas beyond the conventional 200 nautical miles off their coasts. The purpose of the cruise is not political, says Coakley; in any case, the Chukchi Borderlands, likely to fall within U.S. jurisdiction, are probably not prospective for minerals. But icebreakers from the various nations have been plying many other places this season
in pursuit of data.
One thing for sure: the Langseth is neither an icebreaker, nor even reinforced against ice. This is its first arctic cruise–made possible by the fact that the Chukchi, in the past too frozen for navigation most of the year, has opened dramatically. Melting in recent years is thought due to global warming and shorter-term natural weather variations–a combination that this month brought arctic ice to its lowest September level ever recorded. The crew will have to watch for ice and may turn back if it gets heavy–but the fact that they dare sail here at all is a testament to the extent to which the arctic, and the world, are changing.