For the longest time, the Arctic wasn't exactly a high priority for the nations of the world. It was a frozen wasteland, a place where native peoples carved out a harsh existence and daring explorers risked everything for fame. Outside of early efforts to discover a Northwest Passage, it was hardly thought of as an economic Shangri-La.
Under the 17th century Freedom of the Seas doctrine, the Arctic belonged to no one. Explorations continued and, occasionally, fictional mad scientists chased their monsters there to die. But largely, the Arctic continued to exist on the outskirts of international politics. Naval conflict entered its waters in both world wars and its skies and waters played host to Cold War machinations, but what else was there to gain from all that ice?
Meanwhile, the world's insatiable appetite for fossil fuels grew and offshore drilling technology continued to improve. Between 1973 and 1982, representatives from around the world established the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Ratified in Nov. 16, 1994, the legislation governs navigation rights and addresses various environmental concerns in the region.
Although the Antarctic treaty of 1959 limits human interaction at the South Pole to purely scientific pursuits, UNCLOS provides a framework for exploitation in the north. It gives Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States all legal claims to valuable seafloor territory -- as well as the possibility to seize even more of it.
The Arctic landgrab continues. Just who will command Arctic resources in the 21st century?