Foreign ministers from the eight Arctic nations have met in Sweden to discuss problems posed by climate change and growing commercial activity.
The Arctic Council, which brings together Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, was set up in 1996 to protect the Arctic's fragile environment and keep it free of conflict. The council holds high-level meetings every two years.
The region's six indigenous groups have permanent representation as observers.
In Kiruna, Sweden, the ministers adopted a legally binding agreement on preventing and dealing with oil spills -- a concern amid mounting global interest in the region’s vast natural resources.
The Arctic is estimated to hold 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits.
These resources, once inaccessible for exploitation, are now being exposed by the melting of the polar sea ice due to what scientists say is man-made climate change.
Rivalries over control of the Arctic have deepened in recent years, including from countries not abutting Arctic territory.
Last year, China sent its first icebreaker ship through the Arctic.
In Sweden, the Arctic Council also agreed to admit China, Japan, India, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, and Italy as permanent observers.
Russia and Canada, as well as indigenous peoples, reportedly oppose the entry of new observers.
Aleksandr Klepekov, a specialist at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, told RFE/RL that indigenous peoples do not favor the inclusion of new observers, which would reduce their own influence at the council.
“For those indigenous peoples, increased economic activity and possible pollution can affect migrations trends and traditional fishing methods," he said.
There is also strong interest in potential new shipping routes.
The distance between Western Europe and East Asia through the Arctic, for instance, is 40 percent shorter than present shipping routes.
Melting ice could also bolster tourism in the region, which is quickly opening up to cruise ships.
But experts like Klepekov say the region remains hazardous.
"Yes, the ice is receding, but ice is not the only obstacle for oil production on the Arctic Shelf," said Klepekov. "Icebergs are on the rise, possibly as a result of warming. So warming does not necessarily ease the situation. Thinner ice, which is more easily broken up by the wind, shatters into small pieces and can pose problems for oil platforms as well as for navigation."
The Arctic's vast distances complicate search-and-rescue efforts in the event of an emergency.
In 2010, a cruise ship ran aground on an uncharted rock off northern Canada. No one was hurt in the incident, but passengers had to wait six days to be rescued.
Experts also warn that unbridled exploitation of the Arctic's untapped reserves of oil, gas, minerals, and precious metals could cause serious environmental damage.
"The negative consequences that could first be felt are the impact on local ecosystems, which are usually described as fragile,” Klepekov noted. “There are few species and they are strongly interdependent. The construction of pipelines could disrupt fish migration routes. On the tundra, pipelines could affect the migration of reindeer."
A U.S. strategy for the Arctic unveiled by President Barack Obama last week concluded that "an undisciplined approach to exploring new opportunities in this frontier could result in significant harm to the region, to our national security interests, and to the global good."