Captain Alfred McLaren's Fight for the North Pole
Credit: Photograph by John Loomis

That's not the case now. As climate change melts the ice pack, it's unlocking two features of the Arctic – one geographic, one geologic – that could, to some degree, affect the lives of just about everyone in the world.

As sea ice melts, the northern route grows more attractive to shippers; it would save 4,000 miles, for instance, on a trip from England to Japan. Its feasibility as a route is not some abstract future notion. At the rate the ice is melting now, experts say, ships will be able to transit the Arctic within 10 years.

The increasing value of Arctic real estate has sent countries into a frenzy of claim-laying and flag-planting unseen since the colonial era. Consider tiny Hans Island. A barren little blip of land at the head of the Northwest Passage, it was uncontested until the Danes put a flag on it in 1984. A couple of years ago, Canada hoisted a larger flagpole of its own. The Danes, outraged, took out international Google advertisements trumpeting their territorial rights. Canadians, in turn, called for a boycott of Danish pastries. The whole international imbroglio concerned what was essentially a lump of rock desired by two normally mild-mannered countries.The spat doesn't bode well for the fate of vast tracts of passageway now thawing across the Arctic.

The geological stakes may be even higher. Millions of years ago the top of the world was a warm place, full of wildlife. All that organic material settled to the seabed and was covered in sediment and compressed over time, like what happened under the sands of the Arabian Peninsula.

"All signs lead to the fact that there's a ton of oil up there," says Scott Borgerson, an Arctic expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank. He estimates that as much as a quarter of the world's still-undiscovered oil and gas may lie under the Arctic seafloor.

Those two assets – shipping lanes and mineral resources – are in short supply around the globe. Ships stand in line at the Panama Canal, and the price of a barrel of oil now reaches three digits. That makes the Arctic increasingly important to any nation willing to pull on its snowshoes. So about the same time that the Explorers Club flag motored toward the undersea North Pole, a team of Danish scientists was also pushing north on an ice-breaking ship for research, an American Coast Guard cutter was setting off to map a large portion of the seafloor, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was traveling to the extreme north of Canada's territory to announce a new military training base and declare that the first rule of Arctic sovereignty is "use it or lose it."

None of those countries, though, matched the prowess of Captain Fred McLaren's former Cold War enemy, the shrewdest of all Slavic sea dragons.

The first Russian to clash with McLaren was a polar bear, fixed in the crosshairs of the captain's periscope. It was 1970, and McLaren had charted half the Siberian continental shelf. He and his crew ascended to periscope depth, and he spun to take a look at the ice on all sides. His stern naval demeanor fell away when he cried out to his quartermaster, "Polar bear! Polar bear! . . . Quick, hand me the camera."

McLaren removed the periscope's eyepiece and slapped on a Hasselblad, snapping shots as the bear took notice and slid off the ice. "He's swimming right for us," he called out. "He's closing fast."

The bear charged, showing white fangs set in a black mouth, at what it apparently thought was a fearless, one-eyed Arctic seal. Had the bear dived, it would have discovered the rest of the USS Queenfish, a nearly 300-foot, 4,650-ton attack submarine powered by a nuclear reactor. After a while, the bear gave up and retreated, leading away what turned out to be a whole family of polar bears, looking over their shoulders in puzzlement.