NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. Coast Guard cutter will embark on an Arctic voyage this week to determine the extent of the continental shelf north of Alaska and map the ocean floor, data that could be used for oil and natural gas exploration.
U.S. and University of New Hampshire scientists on the Coast Guard Cutter Healy will leave Barrow, Alaska, on Thursday on a three-week journey. They will create a three-dimensional map of the Arctic Ocean floor in a relatively unexplored area known as the Chukchi borderland.
The Healy will launch again on September 6, when it will be joined by Canadian scientists aboard an icebreaker, who will help collect data to determine the thickness of sediment in the region. That is one factor a country can use to define its extended continental shelf.
With oil at $114 a barrel, after hitting a record $147 in July, and sea ice melting fast, countries like Russia and the United States are looking north for possible energy riches.
"These are places nobody's gone before, in essence, so this is a first step," said Margaret Hays, the director of the oceanic affairs office at the U.S. State Department. She said the data collected may provide information to the public about future oil and natural gas sources for the United States.
This will be the fourth year that the United States has collected data to define the limits of its continental shelf in the Arctic.
Russia, which has claimed 460,000 square miles of Arctic waters, last summer planted its flag on the ocean floor of the North Pole.
Hays said the Alaskan continental shelf may lie up to 600 nautical miles from the coastline, far beyond the 200-mile (322-km) limit where coastal countries have sovereign rights over natural resources.
The research could also shed light on other potential energy resources, like methane frozen in ice under the ocean, that Hays said might one day have some commercial interest.
Larry Mayer, a university scientist, said melting sea ice, presumably from global warming, helped last year's mission. "It was bad for the Arctic, but very very good for mapping."
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