MOSCOW -- A Russian expedition aiming to claim vast swaths of the Arctic Ocean seabed reached the North Pole on Wednesday, and scientists immediately began preparing to send two mini-submarines under the ice to mark the sea floor with a Russian flag.
The Rossiya atomic icebreaker plowed a path to the pole through a sheet of multiyear ice, clearing the way for the Akademik Fedorov research ship to follow, said Sergei Balyasnikov a spokesman for the Arctic and Antarctic research institute that prepared the expedition.
"For the first time in history, people will go down to the sea bed under the North Pole," Balyasnikov said. "It's like putting a flag on the moon."
The voyage, led by polar explorer and Russian legislator Artur Chilingarov, has some scientific goals, including the study of Arctic plants and animals. But its chief goal appears to be advancing Russia's political and economic influence by strengthening its legal claims to the huge gas and oil deposits thought to lie beneath the Arctic sea floor.
Russian scientists hope to dive in two mini-submarines to a depth of more than 13,200 feet, and drop a metal capsule carrying the Russian flag onto the sea bed. Balyasnikov said the dive was to start this morning and last several hours. Each submarine will carry three people.
The symbolic gesture, along with geologic data being gathered by expedition scientists, is intended to prop up Moscow's claims to more than 460,000 square miles of the Arctic shelf -- which, by some estimates, may contain 10 billion tons of oil and gas deposits.
About 100 scientists aboard the Akademik Fedorov are specifically looking for evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge -- a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that crosses the polar region -- is a geologic extension of Russia, and therefore can be claimed by it under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The subs will also collect specimens of Arctic plants and animals and videotape the dives.
The expedition reflects an intense rivalry between Russia, the United States, Canada and other nations whose shores face the polar ocean for the Arctic's icebound riches.
The U.S. State Department noted that Russia has not yet made public the research allegedly backing its position and said the best available scientific evidence suggests the ridges in question are oceanic by nature "and thus not part of any country's continental shelf."