As climate change accelerates, the geography of the Arctic is rapidly changing. Of late, there has been much discussion about new potential that is being opened up in the North, and countries are stepping forward to capitalize on it. The window of opportunity is opening quickly, as temperatures are rising faster in this region than anywhere else in the world. The prospects of particular interest to countries in the vicinity are the potential new shipping routes and fossil fuels, yet it still remains to be seen who is going to lay claim to this highly-demanded area. The Law of the Sea determines nations’ abilities to extract oil and gas beyond a 200-mile exclusive economic zone originating at their borders. For a country to have a legitimate claim to resources, it must demonstrate that the area in question lies on its continental slope.

For countries like Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States, this is an extremely exciting opportunity. The US Geological Survey recently estimated that the Arctic seabed holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas. As natural resources become increasingly scarce, the Arctic may prove to be one of the last great opportunities for drilling.

However, environmental groups are against oil drilling in the Arctic because of the threat it poses to natural oceanic habitats, both directly, through the extraction process, and indirectly, through the potential for oil spills. Still, groups like the Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature support the treaty, as they believe that it provides valuable clarity and negotiating space to the international community. Given the United States’ all too recent experience with offshore drilling (the British Petroleum oil spill of 2010), the US government takes this risk seriously. This is part of the reason why the ratification process for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea saw such slow progress.

Additionally, the once-mythical Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans appeared in the summer months of 2007. As temperatures continue to rise and the ice continues to melt, the waterway is opening  up for longer periods of time. Some are even predicting that the Arctic will be completely free of ice during the summer of 2030. On this, too, there is great contention between countries over who will gain access to the shipping lanes. The United States is claiming that it is an international waterway and that it is not acceptable for Canada to restrict access despite the fact that it passes through Canadian territory. Canada, on the other hand, is flexing its sovereign muscle and standing by its right to regulate the passage.

While the opportunities seem grand, the lack of knowledge of the area grounds these prospects in speculation. In the navigational arena, the lack of information and charting raises concerns that any passage through the area will be unreliable.

Additionally, unlike many other shipping routes of this length, there is very little opportunity for cargo commerce along the way. Beyond that, the ice that lingers poses an obstacle to ships that threatens to add considerable time to their voyages.

Despite the difficult legal battle ahead and the lingering uncertainty, countries are moving forward in the race for this frontier. Yet as more countries join in, the likelihood of competition increases and many observers are predicting military involvement. In a world where new economic leaders such as China, India, and Brazil are emerging, there is a hunger for remaining natural resources. If this region turns out to have the wealth of natural resources it seems to, its future will be closely followed by every nation that remains reliant on fossil fuels. For the Arctic countries, this is more than just scientific interest: in 2007, the Russian flag was planted at the North Pole. Stakes have already been set in this resource game, and the tension will continue to escalate as the possibility of a resource race increases.

Any country that is attempting to lay claim to this Arctic “Wild West”—whether it is Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark or Norway—has its work cut out for it. Besides facing harsh operating conditions, uncertainty, a lack of geographic and navigational information, and intense political competition, these countries face the Treaty of the Law of the Sea. All of these constraints make it unlikely that the potential of Artic natural resources will soon be realized. Whichever country gains access will ultimately be facing a gamble between immense risks and vast rewards.