Maine’s Arctic ambitions could benefit Alaska

By Tom Bell - October 7, 2016
A container ship is loaded in at Portland, Maine. Portland hosts the only full Arctic Council meeting outside Alaska during the U.S. chairmanship of the council. (Thinkstock)
A container ship is loaded in at Portland, Maine. Portland hosts the only full Arctic Council meeting outside Alaska during the U.S. chairmanship of the council. (Thinkstock)

PORTLAND, Maine — The Arctic Council Senior Officials meeting this week in Portland is expected to pump $1 million into the Maine economy. That’s $1 million that could have gone to Alaska if Anchorage had served as the host city.

But delegates from Alaska attending the Portland meeting say getting other states involved in Arctic politics is more important than a one-time economic windfall gained from holding a conference.

When Canada held the chairmanship for two years, it held all of its meetings in remote northern territories, said Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Anchorage-based Institute of the North.

[How Maine is turning itself into an Arctic player]

At the end of two years, a national poll showed that only 10 percent of Canadians in southern provinces were even aware that Canada had held the chairmanship, compared to 60 percent in the northern territories, he said.

Andreassen said it’s critical that Alaska develop political allies in other states on Arctic issues and that holding the conference in Maine will benefit Alaska in the long run.

“The idea that there are long-term strategic partnerships that can be developed with other U.S. states is really an incredible opportunity,” he said.

Climate change will have huge impacts on Arctic communities and ecosystems, and it’s important that people in lower latitudes understand what’s happening in the north, said Margaret Williams, an Anchorage resident who served as an observer at the Portland conference in her role as managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s U.S. Arctic program.

She noted that Maine is experiencing some of the same impacts from climate change as Alaska. The Gulf of Maine, she said, is warming at a rate four times faster than the ocean bodies in the rest of the world, and the Arctic is warming at a rate two times faster.

Maine, like Alaska, is dependent on sustainable fisheries, and the health of its coastal communities is tied to the productivity of the ocean, she said. More than a dozen Alaskans attended an Alaska-Maine roundtable discussion that focused on common issues, such as ocean acidification, fisheries management, coastal erosion and energy.

Meanwhile, two Maine companies, Ocean Renewable Power Co. and Pika Energy, are developing innovative micro-grid technologies that could benefit remote Alaska communities.

Andreassen said people at the meeting discussed ways to establish joint-venture projects that would use community investment as a way to leverage technology developed in Maine.

Maine has a different landscape, but is facing many of the same economic and environmental issues as Alaska, said Michael Sfraga, a professor of Arctic policy at the School of Natural Resources and Extension at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Sfraga said he was surprised to learn that scientists in Maine and Alaska are already working together on several projects.

“Not only are there more connections than I thought there were, but the possibilities of even more are quite clear,” he said.

Tom Bell is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Portland Press-Herald.  Bell this summer traveled on container ship from Maine to  Iceland. Photos and a podcast are available at