On a dreary Thursday exactly two weeks after Chilingarov's flag planting, the oceanographer leading the United States' Arctic effort sits in a Mexican restaurant in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in North America. It is a strange place to be eating chips and salsa, and it is a strange time to be Larry Mayer, a University of New Hampshire professor who is one of the world's few experts in what it takes to claim the ocean floor. Until recently, his task has been obscure; now, thanks to Chilingarov, journalists are calling daily, and foreign governments are watching. Assembled in the restaurant are 21 others—18 scientists, two guys from the State Department, and me—and tomorrow we begin a month-long survey of what may someday become the American Arctic. The Healy, the newest of the U.S. Coast Guard's three aging polar icebreakers, is just offshore, and we will be shuttled to it, three at a time, in a rented helicopter. Before we go, Mayer has a request, one that acknowledges how different things are this year: "No photos of American flags," he says. Everybody laughs. "No, I'm serious," he says. "If a picture gets out in the press, we've got big problems."
For all the talk of conflict in the Arctic, there is broad agreement among northern nations, Russia included, on how to claim a piece of it: You map it. Maps matter because the shape and geology of the seafloor matter, and the shape and geology of the seafloor matter thanks to an article in the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a playbook for partition that has been ratified by 156 countries. (Because of obstructionism by a few UN-wary senators, the U.S. is not yet among them, but it is acting as if it is.) Under the treaty, if a state wants to grow its maritime boundaries past the customary 200 nautical miles, it must prove that the ocean bottom is continental in origin—part of its same landmass, only underwater. Political questions can have scientific answers. So politicians have turned to scientists—oceanographers like Mayer for the seafloor's shape and seismic surveyors for its underlying geology—to build their case. Only Norway has a Law of the Sea submission under active review; the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Russia are still busy mapping.
Since 2003 Mayer's State Department–directed missions have been charting around the Chukchi Plateau, an undersea ridge that extends nearly 600 miles north of Barrow. His job, he says, is simply to discover what lies beneath the world's least explored ocean; politicians can squabble over what these discoveries mean. The oceanographer's cliché is that we know more about the surface of the moon than about the seafloor, and this is especially true in the Arctic. The first digital chart of the entire Arctic Ocean was released only in 2000, and coverage of the central ocean remains spotty, though it's constantly revised, partly with data from satellites at a thousandth of the resolution of onshore maps. To truly know the seabed's shape, scientists must measure the ocean's depth at various points. Until recently, this higher-resolution data, known as bathymetry, came only from Cold War–era submarine tracks—pencil lines across the polar expanse, often dangerously imprecise. For Mayer, the blanks in the charts are an obsession. If it is nationalism that drives him, rather than pure love of discovery, he hides it well.
For four days and 500 miles, in calm seas mostly free of ice, the Healy cruises north from Barrow to almost 80 degrees. The ship is 4,200 square feet and as stable as solid ground, pervaded by the low hum of its churning engines. I share a stateroom with 26-year-old Barrow native Jimmy Jones Olemaun, an Inupiat observer on board to make sure we do no harm to mammal life. He spends much of his time on the bridge scanning the sea with binoculars, or in the science party's lounge checking his MySpace account. Whenever I leave our room, he turns the thermostat down.