The route of a rare cruise ship transit of the Northwest Passage in 2016. As sea ice recedes with global warming, a less-whimiscal version of the same path could be used by cargo ships from Asia. (Source: Crystal Cruises)
The route of a rare cruise ship transit of the Northwest Passage in 2016. As sea ice recedes with global warming, a less-whimiscal version of the same path could be used by cargo ships from Asia. (Source: Crystal Cruises)
Speaking to an online group as part of the Camden Conference last week, U.S. Sen. Angus King posed a rhetorical question — “Why would a senator from Maine be interested in the Arctic?”

King has spent more time in the Arctic than most senators and had just finished describing, often from firsthand observation, the depletion of sea ice at the top of the globe, which is down 75% from preindustrial times. The change is directly linked to global warming, which melts glaciers and warms ocean water, which causes it to expand, elevating sea levels on a human civilization that is mostly clustered on the coasts. He described moulins in Greenland, holes in glaciers through which meltwater pours and lubricates the ice against the bedrock below, speeding its slide into the sea. The glaciers of Greenland alone contain 20 feet of sea-level rise, King said. He showed a graph of ocean levels over the last 24,000 years, from the glacial maximum of the last ice age when sea-level was 390 feet lower than today and the uneven curve to the present, pointing out a “pulse” about 15,000 years ago during an accelerated period of warming that raised the sea level by a foot per decade. He recalled talks with scientists who believe we could enter a similar pulse by the end of the century. On the graph, sea level hit its current point about 8,000 years ago and has been level since then.

“Well, 8,000 years is recorded human history,” King said, “which means we think that’s the way it’s always been, and that it’s always going to be the way it was. But what this graph tells you is that, not that long ago, it was drastically different. So times can change, and they are changing before our very eyes.”

The next pulse would involve glacial ice that remained after the ice age, in Greenland and Antarctica. King said the slope of the prehistoric meltwater pulse keeps him awake at night.

“Because if we’re getting into a situation where the ocean rises a foot a decade, or even a foot every two decades. It’s going to be enormously expensive. It’s going to have huge impacts around the world. And it’s going to have huge national security implications.”

That would seem to be enough reason for a senator from Maine to care about the Arctic. But King answered his own question in a different way, pulling up a map marked with the route of the Crystal Serenity, a cruise ship that traveled from Seward, Alaska, to Bar Harbor by way of the Arctic Sea in 2016. The route could also serve the shipping industry, he said.

“If you’re coming over the pole, the first port is Eastport, and Searsport, then Portland. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in this. Not for the next few years, or maybe even the next 10 years, but in the long run I see this as part of Maine’s future.”

The Northwest Passage, as a complex of routes threading through the Arctic Archipelago of northern Canada is known, and its eastern counterpart, the Northern Sea Route, north of Scandinavia and Russia, have increasingly been open to ships as the expanse of Arctic sea ice has shrunk. Both routes are much shorter than any current passage from Asia to North America or Europe, which rely on the Panama and Suez canals, respectively. “The Suez route, I think, is something like 14 days longer for shipping,” King said.

On the down side, the routes still require icebreakers, of which, King said, the U.S. has only one in operation and a second for parts. But at the current rate of melt, that is likely to change soon.

“Every year, the time that they say this is going to be feasible seems to shorten,” King said. “Four or five years ago they were saying 30 years; now people are saying 20 years.”

Former Gov. Paul LePage got mixed reviews in 2013 when he touted the same shipping opportunity for Maine. At the time, Democrats criticized him for ignoring the perils of climate change, but the state was already investing in Arctic alliances and trade. Earlier that year, Eimskip, Iceland’s largest shipping company, made its North American headquarters in Portland. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Iceland’s former president, visited for Maine International Trade Day, hosted by the Maine International Trade Center. MITC that year created the Maine North Atlantic Development Office to promote economic collaboration and trade investments with North Atlantic countries. Grímsson returned to Maine, virtually, this year as the keynote speaker at the Camden Conference.

During the Trump administration, Arctic policy was viewed in more strategic and confrontational terms — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 famously challenged the longstanding cooperative spirit among Arctic nations when he told the Arctic Council, “The region has become an arena of global power and competition.” That appears likely to change under President Biden, who has re-entered the international Paris Agreement on climate change and taken a more traditionally diplomatic approach to working with other countries than his predecessor did.

Whether the melting sea ice presents a sustainable opportunity for Maine or is the equivalent of an open bar on the Titanic remains to be seen. King didn’t try to reconcile the hazards of human-caused climate change with the opportunities they present to continue commerce apace. Instead, he acknowledged that both are happening.

“This is what is,” he said. “This is a reality.”