Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Beneath the frozen wastes of the Arctic, a three-way geopolitical tug-of-war is taking place over which country owns a ridge of undersea mountains. The winner will change maps forever.

One of the most mysterious mountain ranges in the world is not visible on any ordinary map. You can’t see it on the most popularly used flat map of the world, the Mercator projection, or on the Peters projection that is a popular (and more accurate) alternative. On a spinning globe, the plastic axle at the North Pole often covers it up, as if there’s nothing to see.

But this is where you can find the Lomonosov Ridge, a vast mountain range running from the continental shelf of Siberia towards Greenland and Canada. The mountain range stretches for more than 1,700km (1,060 miles), its highest peak is 3.4km (2.1 miles) above the ocean floor.

This little-known mountain range is at the centre of three nations seeking sovereignty over the seabed around the North Pole. According to Denmark, the mountain range is an extension of its autonomous territory of Greenland. According to Russia, it is an extension of the Siberian archipelago Franz Josef Land. And according to Canada, it is an extension of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut.

So who is right?

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The ridge was first discovered in 1948 by researchers on one of the Soviet Union’s early expeditions to the central Arctic. From a camp on the sea ice, the Soviet scientists detected unexpectedly shallow waters to the north of the New Siberian Islands. It was the first hint that the ocean was split into two basins by the ridge, rather than being one large, featureless basin, as previously assumed. In 1954, the researchers published a map showing an underwater mountain range, which they named after the 18th-Century poet and naturalist Mikhail Lomonosov, who had predicted 200 years before that such features would be found in the Arctic basin.

Today, more than 70 years after the ridge was detected, it remains an enigmatic feature in one of the most poorly mapped seafloors in the world. Even with modern ships passing powerful 864-beam arrays of sonar down through the Arctic waters, the resolution of the ridge is only in the order of hundreds of metres. That’s like being just about able to distinguish one end of an athletics track from the other side.