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The submersibles' return was harrowing—following Mir I up from the seabed, Mir II searched for an hour and a half before finding the ice opening—but the drama of the dive was soon drowned out by the supposed politics of it. More than 40 journalists were waiting aboard the surface vessels, and they quickly filed their reports: "Russia Claims the North Pole!" Chilingarov willingly stoked nationalist flames. "The Arctic," he said at a press conference, "has always been Russian."

The dive soon became something it had scarcely been: an act of expansionism, not exploration—of geopolitics rather than glorified tourism. Observers seemed ready to believe that the Arctic's future would be decided by flags and warships, belligerence and brinkmanship. Chilingarov's triumph was denounced by Canada, condemned by the Danes, snorted at by the U.S. State Department. Overnight, he became the bearded face of the bitter polar land rush. So one can be forgiven for thinking that this story—the real story of the race for the Arctic—is about Chilingarov. It is not.

This is a story about the changing Arctic, but not only in the ways we expect. The changes most important to its future may be those from millions of years in its past, from times between the Triassic and early Tertiary, when the major basins in the Arctic were just being formed. Pieces of the supercontinent Pangaea were drifting apart, and at times greenhouse gases warmed the world to far hotter than it is today. One might say that parts of the Arctic were, for a time, almost tropical—to some degree because temperatures were higher globally, but more so because parts of the Arctic have not always been in the Arctic: Some drifted north, over geologic time, from warmer latitudes. The creation of oil and gas deposits requires the right mix of organic material, heat, rock, pressure, and passage of time—and it may be hard to look at the Arctic today and imagine that it ever had enough organic life, enough heat. But for geologists, it is hard to imagine that it did not.

Now the floor of the Arctic Ocean appears to be rich in petroleum—home, according to some estimates, to nearly a quarter of the world's undiscovered supply. Sea ice is melting drastically, opening the sea to shipping and the seafloor to mineral exploration. And that seafloor is being eyed by the five countries bordering it—Canada, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the U.S.—all hoping to claim a piece.

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