The planting of a Russian flag at the bottom of the central Arctic Ocean in the summer of 2007 drew attention, in dramatic fashion, to a subterranean space beyond national jurisdiction. While the region was a permanent feature in Cold War strategic planning, the flag planting incident was rapidly framed as indicative of a different kind of struggle –‘a scramble for territory and resources’. Notwithstanding the media led hyperbole, one question to emerge was an apparently straightforward one – did any one state or group of states possess sovereign rights in the central Arctic Ocean? More generally, how do issues of access, control, property rights and resource use continue to affect the governance of the global commons? This special section explores those questions.