The researchers are aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ice cutter for the fourth U.S. expedition "designed to map the uncharted parts of the Arctic sea for establishing an extended continental shelf," said Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire and head of the research team.
Several of the countries bordering the Artic Circle have been rushing to establish these underwater boundaries, as evidence of melting Arctic sea ice has heighted the prospect of being able to access some of the valuable oil and natural gas in the seabed within the next 30 years.
A U.S. Geological Survey assessment released in July estimated the Arctic Circle has 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, as well as 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas.
While establishing claims to areas of the Arctic is not a multilateral race, in August 2007 Russia created some tensions among Arctic neighbors when it planted a small titanium Russian flag on the sea floor at the North Pole, symbolically claiming the region. Russia, Canada and the United States have all sent naval ships to the Arctic at points during the last year in displays of assertiveness.
While the moves garnered attention, the real way to claim a part of the Arctic seabed is in many ways more difficult, and being first does not offer any guarantees. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations have to prove their underwater geographical boundaries to extend their resource rights. The treaty has been ratified by all the Arctic-bordering countries except for the United States, which will likely ratify the treaty later this year.
The process has been held up by a small group of opponents in Congress, said David Caron, co-director of the Law of the Sea Institute at Berkeley Law School, but there is broad support for the treaty in the United States; from the president, the Department of the Defense, environmental groups and many lawmakers.
"I don't know of any treaty so widely supported," said Caron. "It gives us procedures, it gives us common language and will facilitate greatly the U.S. advancing its own interests."
The treaty gives nations an exclusive economic zone for 200 miles from their shorelines. If a country can prove that the continental shelf extends past that 200 mile mark, the treaty provides for sovereign rights over resources in that region, up to 350 miles from the shore.
If a country can prove its territory is connected to an underwater ridge, sovereign rights to resources could be extended even further out into the Arctic Circle along that ridge.
A country has 10 years from the time it ratifies the treaty to make a claim on its extended continental shelf territory and connections to ridges, so each nation has a different deadline for submissions.
While being the first to submit a claim over an area is not key, "there is a sense that you don't want to be silent in the face of a claim so conducting your own research is important," said Caron, who warns there is a misconception that these claims will be settled sometime soon.
"Basically what countries are doing is lining up claims and those claims will probably be in opposition with each other for decades."
Russia and Canada have both laid claim to the Lomonosov ridge, a major area about 1,100 miles long dividing the Arctic Circle, which would provide a huge extension in territory for both.
Russia submitted an official claim to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2001, but was asked to collect additional data to substantiate its claim.
Canada presented data, produced through joint research with Denmark, in early August at the International Geological Congress in Oslo, Norway, indicating the ridge is connected to North America and Greenland. Canada has until 2013 to submit an official claim under the treaty.
Jacob Verhoef, director of Canada's United Nations Law of the Sea program, said the researchers used seismic instruments to measure the velocity structures of the North American continent, moving outward to the Lomonosov ridge. The structures stayed very similar as they measured along the way, indicating the land was continuous.
"I'm reasonably confident that we have the right scientific information. If we get the scientific community to accept this we will have a much easier case in 2013," Verhoef said.
However, Russia presented similar preliminary research at the same conference, connecting Siberia to the ridge.
"Scientifically that is not impossible," Verhoef said. "You could basically have that both countries will meet somewhere in the middle or that the ridge is not continuous enough and we have to stop somewhere before or Russia has to stop somewhere before."
The United States has two debatable Arctic boundaries with Canada and Russia, but has yet to run into any major areas of contention.
"The U.S. does not have that big a segment of the Arctic Ocean, the beach front property, it's not the U.S.' strength, but they do have oil in their zone," said Caron. USGS estimates that Arctic Alaska, where Mayer's team is exploring, is one of the three most resource rich geological provinces of the Arctic.
More detailed information about the distribution of resources is not yet known, as most mapping research has focused on determining boundaries and the shape of the ocean floor.
Data collected by Mayer's team last year found that the foot of the continental slope off Alaska is more than 100 nautical miles farther from the U.S. coast than previously thought.
Mayer said data on those areas had been so sparse they didn't know what to expect. The use of multibeam echo sounder technology allowed the researchers to take many precise measurements across a wide swath all at once.
"What we collect now is so detailed ... we're suddenly getting a complete picture of the ocean floor," Mayer said.
While countries can use the data collected on their research missions for submissions under the treaty, Mayer and Verhoef both emphasized that these expeditions are not just about resources, but also about gaining scientific knowledge of a mostly uncharted area.
"We know more about the dark side of the moon than we do about some parts of the Arctic," said Verhoef.
"We are seeing geological structures that are helping us understand the origin of the region," said Mayer, who also described how the maps of the ocean floor can help scientists understand trends in climate change.
Canada and the United States will conduct a joint survey of the western Arctic beginning in September.
"It's so hard to work in these regions and so expensive to work in these regions and we realize that collaborating is the only way we will get this done," said Mayer.