Historically, that debate has been largely theoretical because the passage has been frozen and impassable. But in August, satellite images showed the passage has now become more navigable than ever, fueling a hot debate between the United States and Canada over who should control it.
At a summit last month in Montebello, Canada, the leaders of the two nations expressed their disagreement.
"Canada's position is that we intend to strengthen our sovereignty in the Arctic area, not only military, but economic, social, environmental and others," said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"We believe it's an international passageway," President Bush countered a moment later.
The latest satellite image shows a clear, wide path running through the Arctic that has major implications for global commerce.
For example, ships that must currently go around South America's Cape Horn because they are too big to traverse the Panama Canal could save about 10,000 miles out of their shipping route.
The passage also saves about 5,000 miles when shipping between Europe and Asia.
Canada, the United States and Denmark are also competing for resources as melting Arctic ice reveals potential deposits of oil and gas.
A mini-submarine placed a Russian flag at the North Pole last month in a symbolic claim to that country's share of Arctic resources.
Environmental groups worry that increased traffic through the Arctic could put the natural resources in jeopardy if there is an oil spill or other disaster in the remote region.