Changing climate patterns means international oil and gas companies are looking to exploit the estimated 30 percent of the world's unrecovered natural gas and 70 percent of the world's undiscovered oil under in arctic waters.
The U.N. Environment Program, in its annual report, said summer ice sheet in 2012 was 18 percent smaller than the previous low record set in 2007.
"Changing environmental conditions in the arctic -- often considered a bellwether for global climate change -- have been an issue of concern for some time, but as of yet this awareness has not translated into urgent action," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a statement.
Problems with Shell's exploration campaign in northern Alaskan waters last year raised concerns about the potential risk of operating in extreme environments.
UNEP said no plans for arctic exploration should move ahead without taking steps to ensure the pristine environment, and those who rely on it, is protected.