It has been noted above that the prospects for significant resource extraction in the Arctic, while generally considered quite sound, are by no means fully clear. The physical environment of region makes any attempt at developing extraction infrastructure a risky and costly affair. This fact remains true even if the likely changes brought about by rising temperatures are taken into account. It is therefore possible that extraction of much of the Arctic's resources will not increase appreciably for years, perhaps even decades.
The state of Arctic geopolitics can, however, be strongly influenced by hypotheticals and promises of future wealth. For this reason, there is a concern among many political, environmental, and economic groups that the warming of the Arctic will be accompanied by a litany of disagreements and conflicts between major Arctic powers. Nations that border the Arctic region, such as the Nordic states, Russia, Canada, and the US, have obvious reasons for safeguarding their sovereignty over resources and transportation routes. These governments have made their territorial intentions clear in a number of ways. In early 2009, the US government issued a National Security Directive that made clear the government's intentions to, among other things, "meet national security needs relevant to the Arctic region, ensure that resource management is environmentally sustainable, [...] and strengthen institutions for cooperation among the Arctic nations."
In 2007, Russia made a more flamboyant show of their attitude towards the Arctic by using a nuclear submarine to plant a Russian flag on the sea-bed of the North Pole.
While the actions of the governments of the Arctic states may at first glance make it appear that the Arctic is a free-for-all for those with the capacity to carve out their own territorial claims, it should be noted that a large body of treaty has been established to govern how states interact in the region. The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, a treaty established in the 1980s to clarify maritime commerce and territorial claims, has been a stabilizing force in delineating how member states interact in the Arctic. The Law of the Seas makes clear, for example, that a nation's territory extends 200 miles off its coasts. Furthermore, it provides guidelines for assessing exactly how maritime borders are to be measured and drawn. Yet the Law of the Seas has not completely eliminated the possibility of conflict over territory or resources: there have been disagreements over where each nation's territory ends. If territorial claims are not resolved, it might be the case in the future that several nations could claim hegemony over the same regions in the most northern regions of the Arctic. At present, however, the fact that so little is known about resources in this area will make any type of open conflict extremely unlikely in the immediate future. Furthermore, while many countries in the region have made investments in military and scientific equipment in the region, all have expressed their willingness to resolve disputes in through the UN.
Two more pressing geopolitical issues confront today's Arctic. The first is the possibility that the expanded economic opportunities brought about by rising temperatures will alter the status of indigenous communities. Greenland, now a territory of Denmark, could be persuaded to petition for more autonomy if the government could be assured that Arctic resources would allow for the economic independence required for full political independence. Secondly, the melting sea-ice will require nations to work together to manage the increased flow of shipping traffic across the polar region. Shipping has already led to squabbles over territory. Canada maintains, for example, that the Northwest Passage, a shipping route which snakes its way through islands belonging to Canada, should be classified as Canadian territory. The US and Europe, however, rebut this claim and currently use the passage without petitioning Canada's permission. The US and Russia have also debated whether certain shipping routes lying to the north of Siberia should be considered international waterways. As sea-ice continues to melt and Arctic shipping continues to grow, it is likely that these debates will only increase in frequency. Moreover, the rise of new global powers, especially China, may yield further disagreements over ownership of lucrative shipping lanes.