Melting Arctic ice brings opportunities, risks to Maine

Melting Arctic ice is opening up marine shipping routes north of the state, but as temperatures and sea levels rise, Maine’s key enterprises could suffer.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
Arctic sea smoke rises on the Royal River in Yarmouth, Maine, as a worker uses a push boat to break ice forming around a dredging operation, Wednesday morning, Jan 14, 2015.

The Arctic region is changing, and Maine’s coastal industries might actually benefit – temporarily.

The Arctic Council convened in Portland this week to consider the challenges, both environmental and economic, posed by that change. Shrinking ice coverage has opened up marine shipping routes north of the state, extending the Arctic trade season considerably. But as temperatures and sea levels rise, Maine’s key enterprises could suffer along with the rest of the region.

“I’m really happy the Arctic Council is meeting here this week,” said Ambassador David Balton on Monday, reported the Portland Press-Herald. “We are trying to persuade, educate our fellow American citizens that they should care about the Arctic.”

The Arctic Council is an international political forum that includes the governments of Arctic nations and indigenous peoples. At the Maine-Arctic Forum, which is held at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, the council stressed that the changing Arctic landscape could affect Mainers both directly and indirectly.

More than ever, merchant vessels are sailing through the Arctic in a bid for increased trade. Melting sea ice has made this possible, but passage is still a dangerous undertaking. These waters are also tricky to navigate legally, since jurisdiction is disputed between nations.

And with commercial opportunities come environmental concerns. In one presentation, Sen. Angus King (I) referred to a Maine scientist who predicted that sea levels will rise one foot in the next 15 years. By 2100, melting ice sheets in the region could raise sea levels up to 6 feet.

“Pretty scary,” Senator King said. “Imagine an extra foot of water in Scarborough Marsh.”

This warming could also hurt the same industries that benefit most from the Arctic ice melt. Rising temperatures and ocean acidification could cause fish to relocate from the coast of Maine, said researcher Paty Matrai of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. At the forum, speakers urged Maine residents and legislators to foster a sustainable relationship between industry and the Arctic region. 

Thomas Avila-Beck, head of global stewardship for Greenpeace, and Jon Burgwald, an Arctic campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic, wrote in an editorial to the Press-Herald:

Despite its place as home to many coastal communities, its ecological significance and its increasing vulnerability because of climate change, the Arctic Ocean remains one of the least protected places on Earth.… Marine protected areas and reserves are an effective measure to better protect it from threats of resource extraction such as industrial-scale fishing and oil and gas drilling, as well as increased shipping.

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