The Arctic Council is preparing a treaty to be signed in the spring to promote scientific cooperation among the eight Arctic nations, a move that would benefit Maine scientists who need access to Russian territory and research for their work on topics ranging from climate change to how oil changes when it’s exposed to severe cold.

David Balton, the United States’ ambassador to the council and the chairman of the council’s senior Arctic officials, hailed it as a groundbreaking agreement. The officials have been meeting all week in Portland to discuss policy issues that affect Arctic nations.

“We are trying to allow Arctic science to be science without borders,” Balton said Friday, the final day of the conference. “Not all science proceeds as smoothly in the Arctic as we might like yet. There are restrictions, particularly in Russia, about entry and exit of scientists from other nations, and their material and data. With this, all the nations in the Arctic will allow much more freedom to conduct science.”

Balton said the eight Arctic nations – the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden – have agreed to the treaty in principle. It will be translated into French and Russian, and the eight Arctic ministers expect to sign the deal at the Arctic Council meeting in Alaska in May, Balton said. Earlier in the week, Balton said that Russian scientists have been eager for the deal.

Maine scientists doing Arctic research are applauding the pending agreement.

“It will be invaluable,” said Paty Matrai of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, who has been doing Arctic research – particularly on phytoplankton – for decades.

“It will save us time, yes, but it will give us all access to data, including historical data that we couldn’t collect now, that we absolutely do not have but we absolutely need,” she said. “We need that baseline data from the past to establish how things are changing, and the pace of those changes.”

The Arctic is not a homogenous place, Matrai said. For example, water mass varies from one region of the Arctic to another, which means that a scientific model about ocean research cannot be validated until it is confirmed by data collected from the large area of the Arctic within Russian borders. In addition, the data obtained by remote technology cannot be validated until it is confirmed by Russian field tests.

It can be difficult for a research institution that has spent years and thousands of dollars in grant money to send their people around the world in very difficult conditions to simply hand over data to someone who has never even left their office, Matrai acknowledged. But science requires peer review, she said. When asked about competition, she said there was more than enough Arctic research to go around.

But not necessarily enough research vessels, she said. There are only a handful of icebreakers available, under control of governments as varied as South Korea to Canada to America, that can safely sail into Arctic waters for scientific research. The governments that control those vessels always require an in-country researcher to accompany a foreign scientist on the missions, and often favor them, Matrai said.

The scientific cooperation agreement was one of a range of topics discussed during the week’s closed-door meetings of the Arctic Council senior officials in Portland, Balton said. Climate change was probably the most talked about topic, and one that the next country to take over the council leadership, Finland, plans to maintain as a top priority, Balton said.

What wasn’t talked about, however, was a proposed moratorium on Arctic fishing. Balton is leading the talks on that and said that a treaty likely will be signed next month at a meeting of Arctic fishing nations in the Faroe Islands. The U.S. and other supporters want to prevent fishing in regions that are not within any country’s territorial waters until Arctic fishing stocks can be assessed.

Balton summed up the council’s visit to Portland as a success.

“We have a saying in the Arctic Council that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Balton said. “The effects of climate change is being felt outside the Arctic Circle. Places like Portland will have a connection to the Arctic in that way. Also, the opening of the Arctic Ocean portends big increases in commerce and other kinds of shipping through the Arctic, and Portland is a major seaport.”