MOSCOW - Russia has pressed a claim at the United Nations for an additional 1.2 million sq km of Arctic shelf, including the North Pole, stepping up a race for the region's hydrocarbon and mineral wealth.
In a submission to support a 2001 claim at the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Russia said this week that research shows it has rights over the swathe - an area the size of South Africa. This would potentially give Russia access to an estimated 4.9 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons, according to government estimates.
The Arctic has become a theatre for rival claims over a vast sea floor believed to be rich in minerals, oil and gas.
Under international law, a country has exclusive economic rights over the continental shelf within a 200-nautical mile radius from its coast.
However, Arctic nations have been jostling to claim greater areas. They have been spurred by the shrinkage of Arctic sea ice, which opens up the potential for new transport routes as well as mineral and energy exploitation.
Under international law, a country has exclusive economic rights over the continental shelf within a 200-nautical mile radius from its coast. However, Arctic nations have been jostling to claim greater areas.
Russia says extensive research spanning several years proves the country's continental shelf extends far beyond the 200-nautical mile radius.
Its claim includes the Mendeleev Rise and Lomonosov Ridge, which Denmark and Canada also say is theirs. Russia argues that the areas, like the North Pole, are part of the Eurasian continent.
Russia previously submitted a claim to the UN commission in 2001 but was told it lacked supporting scientific data.
Over the last decade, nine expeditions, each costing up to a billion roubles (S$22 million), have collected seismic data and mapped the ocean floor over tens of thousands of kilometres.
If the new proposal is accepted by the UN commission, Russia would not only gain the right to the mineral deposits but also have an argument in favour of expanding its frontiers, said Mr Viktor Poselov, a deputy director of research at the VNII Okeangeologia Institute in Saint Petersburg.
"We would set a border that would limit other states from accessing this area," he said.
As for contested areas like the North Pole, their status would have to be resolved diplomatically. "The question of the North Pole would have to be addressed, whether to leave it as the common property of the international community," he said.
Denmark also claimed the North Pole in a proposal submitted in 2014, although it could be years before the commission formally reviews the research. Canada filed an Arctic seabed claim in 2013 but later withdrew the proposal and is drafting a new one. Norway and Russia formally put an end to a longstanding Arctic dispute in 2010 by signing an agreement on delimitation in the Barents Sea.
"There are definitely very interesting deposits there, but the question is how accessible they are," Mr Poselov said.
"The conditions are very difficult, it's an issue for the future."
Greenpeace said the claim endangered the area around the North Pole that is already vulnerable to climate change and called for nations not to treat it as "the next Saudi Arabia".
Mr Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia, said: "Unless we act together, this region could be dotted with oil wells and fishing fleets within our lifetimes."
Russia boldly planted its flag on the sea bed under the North Pole in 2007 and this year established a special commission for Arctic development to oversee economic projects and national security in the region. It has also held war games in the region,