Acquatic Nationalism

exped073008.jpg Back at the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia would vigorously compete to achieve the next greatest milestone in scientific achievement and exploratory bravado – best illustrated of course by the race to put a man in space. Lest you think these competitive ambitions for new conquests have died down since the fall of the Berlin wall, think again. As we learned from the pseudo-fictional submarine dive to the floor of the Arctic Ocean to plant a Russian flag, Russia is still very interested in proving that they can be the first to arrive to a difficult objective. Regardless of what you may think about the Arctic claim politically, most agree that it was an impressive feat of engineering, headed up by the photogenic veteran, explorer, expedition leader, and nationalist duma member Artur Chilingarov. Chilingarov was back in the news this week, with yet another ambitious and bold expedition, this time not to plant a flag but to set a world record for the deepest freshwater dive aboard a mini-submarine. However, things did not go according to plan, and the submarines had to turn back before reaching their goal of 1,680 meters. That didn’t stop the crew, however, from claiming to the media that a new record had been set, causing awkward embarrassment when Chilingarov had to retract the statements. The Guardian is carrying the best coverage:

But Russian experts said there was little possibility the scientists would find new or exotic life on the bottom of the lake, preferring instead to hail the dive as the latest example of Russia’s resurgence.

“We have gone to the depths of Lake Baikal to find out what the lake is,” Dr Yulduz Khliullin, an assistant director of Moscow’s Institute of Oceanography told the Guardian yesterday. “We are interested in its chemistry and biology.”He added, however: “The dive is certainly also a kind of advertisement for the Russian government and for our science. We are trying also to draw attention to the lake and the need to preserve it.”Asked whether the scientists might find a new species of fish, or interesting shrimp, Khliullin said: “I don’t think they will discover anything extraordinary. But there are indications we may find hydrogen gas.”The mini-submarines used in yesterday’s non-record-breaking dive are the same submersible vehicles used by Russia last year to plant a flag on the bottom of the Arctic seabed.That expedition drew criticism from western nations, which accused Russia of trying to grab the Arctic for itself. The veteran explorer who led the north pole expedition, Artur Chilingarov, a pro-Kremlin MP, also led the Baikal dive.Chilingarov said last night that the subs had not been trying to break any records. He admitted they had sunk to a depth of 1,580m, not 1,680m as first reported. “They went along the bottom for 3.5 miles. It’s very flat terrain. There are no depressions they could go into,” he said.The mini-subs slipped into Baikal’s choppy waters just after dawn yesterday. They then disappeared, as Chilingarov and other scientists watched from a mission-control point on a nearby platform, near the lake’s rugged Olkhon island. The subs are expected to carry out 50-60 dives between now and the end of September.They will return to Baikal early next summer, once the ice that engulfs the crescent-shape lake – next to the city of Irkutsk, and not far from the border with Mongolia and China – melts.There was more dispiriting news yesterday for Russia. According to the US geological survey, Moscow placed its flag on the Arctic bottom last year in the wrong place. The strata underneath the north pole recently claimed by Russia appears to hold just 1.2% of the Arctic’s crude – estimated at 90bn barrels of oil.