"We enter the thickness, characteristics and age of the rocks into the program," says Gautier. The computer then reconstructs the geological history of the corresponding site. The geologists are especially interested in the so-called "oil window" -- an area of the earth's crust that has temperature and pressure conditions that make the formation of oil possible.
It must be warm enough for oil formation, but not too warm. The USGS researchers' computer graphics correlate a time axis with an axis that indicates the depth of a particular sediment layer, which shows geologists whether a particular region has basic reservoir potential.
Comparing similar areas helps determine possible amounts of oil in other parts of the world. So where are structures similar to those found in the Arctic region? "In the case of northeast Greenland, you can say, for example, that the area is very similar to western Norway and the northern part of the North Sea," says Gautier. Since there is already significantly more data on these analogous areas than for the Arctic, researchers can use this information for modeling:
A total of 17 surveyed sites promise significant finds. There could be up to 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil in the Arctic, representing 13 percent of the world's as yet undiscovered reserves.
Most important are the three main oil provinces -- Arctic Alaska (US), the Canada Basin (Canada) and Greenland (Denmark). More than half of the estimated deposits are located in these areas.
The large natural gas reserves in the Arctic are even more interesting than oil. These are estimated to contain around 47.3 trillion cubic meters of gas, plus 44 billion barrels of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Converted into oil equivalent, these deposits are three times as large as the estimated Arctic oil fields. Therefore, probably 30 percent of undiscovered gas reserves and 20 percent of undiscovered LPG in the world is slumbering in the north.
Three provinces are especially important for gas: the West Siberian Basin (Russia), the eastern Barents Sea (Norway/Russia) and Arctic Alaska (US).
The vast majority of deposits (84 percent) are located offshore.
USGS researchers have also found methane hydrates, i.e. methane trapped in ice on the seabed, off the coast of Alaska. It would be theoretically possible to extract an additional 2.41 trillion cubic meters of gas in this way. This would correspond roughly to the total world gas consumption, which is 2.93 trillion cubic meters per year.
Still, the fact that many Arctic exploitation opportunities are now technically feasible does not necessarily mean they make economic sense, Gautier notes. USGS will conduct additional surveys to find out which areas of the Arctic can be developed under which economic conditions. Only then can it be estimated how long Arctic oil can delay the end of the oil age.
"I was surprised. I had actually thought that the figures were higher," admits Gautier. "The Arctic will never replace the Middle East. Northern Alaska will never be the Saudi Arabia of the Western world."
Despite the huge gas reserves in shelf areas in Russia identified by USGS, Gautier also has some bad news for the Russians.
"There will be no petroleum El Dorado under the North Pole, whatever the Russians do with their little flag out there," he says.