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Icebreakers head out to map Arctic sea floor

Canada has sent two icebreakers to the High Arctic to gather scientific data in support of its plan to bid for control of the sea floor under and beyond the North Pole.

The coast guard vessels Terry Fox and Louis St. Laurent set out Friday on a six-week journey that will take them to the eastern side of the Lomonosov Ridge, a long undersea feature that runs from near Ellesmere Island in Nunavut northward over the pole.

"If ice conditions permit, this survey will include areas in the vicinity of the North Pole," said a government bulletin released Friday afternoon.

The trip comes after Canada made a partial submission in December to the United Nations body that is considering claims from different countries to sections of the Arctic sea floor. That submission involved 1.2 million square kilometres, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped in at the last minute to insist Canada extend its claim further.

Scientists have suggested it looks as if the ridge is connected to the Canadian land mass, but Canada has only done aerial surveys of the ridge once it gets past the pole.

Arctic experts point out that Russia and Denmark also argue the Lomonosov Ridge extends from their shores. The North Pole actually lies on the Danish side of the ridge, as well as on the Danish side of a line that runs equidistant between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Some have accused Harper of playing to domestic audiences by trying for a larger claim.

Rob Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary's Centre for Strategic Studies, said that any overlapping claims will be settled by negotiation. But it's still worth trying to get as much for Canada as possible, he said.

"Why shouldn't we?" he asked. "Do you think anyone else is going to give us any leeway?

"Nobody really knows what type of resources are up there."

Huebert pointed out that the international situation has changed since last December, as relations between Russia and the West have grown strained. Russian President Vladimir Putin may see the Canadian mapping as a provocation, he said.

"I would suspect they would see this as a continuation of western encirclement. It may be at the point where Putin is willing to push back."

The Danes are likely to be tough negotiators as well, he said.

"I don't think anyone wants it on their watch that they surrendered (the Arctic)."

The government offered no information Friday on the cost of the mission. A second mapping trip is planned in 2015.

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