Portland will host a historic international forum on the Arctic on October 4-6. It is the first Senior Arctic Officials meeting to take place in the United States outside of Alaska, reflecting Maine’s growing significance to the Arctic region. 

Nearly 250 government officials, business leaders and indigenous community representatives from around the globe will attend. 

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental organization featuring representatives from the eight Arctic countries and six groups representing indigenous Arctic communities. They produce assessments of issues affecting the Arctic and have negotiated two legally binding agreements between the eight member states.

Last Saturday, the Arctic Council Subcommittee on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment met on Bowdoin’s campus. Several Bowdoin students attended, including Tharun Vemulapalli ’19, who works at the Arctic Museum.

“The broad topic of it was how to better engage with indigenous people …  not just coming up with policy and telling them what to do,” said Vemulapalli.

When the committee broke into working groups, they asked students to take notes for them. When the groups were asked to present their conclusions to the whole committee, some unexpectedly requested that the students do so on their behalf. 

“They were very open to having students involved. In fact, they were thrilled,” said Susan Kaplan, professor of anthropology and director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center.

The Arctic Museum completed an Arctic Trail map just in time for the forum, showcasing the sites of Maine’s Arctic heritage across the state.

In recent years, Maine has established itself as a gateway to the Arctic region. In 2013, the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip moved its headquarters to Portland. Between 2012 and 2015, Portland’s exports to Iceland grew over 2,000 percent and the Port of Portland doubled in size, according to Dana Eidsness, director of the recently created Maine North Atlantic Development Office at the Maine International Trade Center. 

Portland is positioned to become even more significant as the earth’s climate continues to warm and travel through the fabled Northwest Passage, a shortcut from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through the Canadian Arctic, becomes a reality. Arctic ice has melted enough that the route has become usable during the late summer and early fall. If the passage’s popularity continues to grow, Portland, the northernmost major U.S. city on the Atlantic, will become an essential international shipping port. 

Efforts to travel from Europe to Asia via the Arctic have failed for centuries. But earlier this month, a cruise ship sailed through the passage for the first time in history. It stopped in Bar Harbor, Maine on its path. 

Much of Maine’s recent Arctic relevance is due to the work of Senator Angus King. In 2015, he and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska co-created the Arctic Caucus, with the goal of turning the US into an international leader on Arctic policy. 

King lobbied the State Department to bring the Arctic Council meeting to Portland.
Bowdoin continues to play a role in the matter as well. Professor Kaplan is on the host committee for the Arctic Council meeting, and a key reception for the incoming forum attendants is being hosted by Bowdoin.

“We have more Arctic experience than almost anybody else in the state,” said Dr. Genevieve LeMoine, curator of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.

She and Kaplan have spent decades doing on-the-ground research in the Arctic. 

Bowdoin’s history with the Arctic dates back to the 1800s. Robert Peary, who graduated from Bowdoin in 1877, led the first successful expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and Donald B. MacMillan—for whom MacMillan House is named—built the first schooner designed specifically for Arctic exploration in 1920. It was called the Bowdoin.