The world looks different from the top. A largely ice-covered ocean is surrounded by coastal states. Russia commands and controls the most Arctic terrain and a strategic navigation route. The United States and NATO allies keep a watchful eye. Since 1941, 147 miles from the North Pole, the northern-most U.S. military base has been at Thule, Greenland. The balance was certain until Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Now, the winds of war are carried to the Arctic. Russia is out of the intergovernmental Arctic Council of States. Sanctions blunt scientific collaboration, commercial trade and Russian Arctic shipping.

Yet Arctic peoples, for the most part, go about their lives, observing and adjusting to climate change. Cold and remote, this world’s largest island is closer to Maine than you might think. If there were a direct flight from Portland it would reach the capital of Nuuk in two hours.

Maine is Greenland’s nearest American neighbor. The two places share much in common: expansive, largely rural territory, and climate change.

This summer, students and faculty of the University of Maine Climate Change Institute and School of Law are studying ice, water, people and law at the edge of the ice sheet. The sailboat ArcticEarth, carrying expedition science gear from Camden, supported coastal water sampling. This annual Greenland field course and research is part of a five-year National Science Foundation-supported program. Other institutions, including the University of Southern Maine, have also brought students to Greenland this summer.

They’re learning that Greenland, the environment and the society, are changing. Long ago the Norse were replaced by people of the ice bridge, the Inuit, who today account for 90 percent of the population of 60,000. Many are planning for an independent Greenland, separate from the Danish realm. The current self-government, including ministries and a parliament, falls short of independence. A commission has been tasked with drafting a constitution. When the time is ripe for a referendum, a fundamental issue will be who votes. Centuries of intermingling with Denmark raises the question: Who is a Greenlander? And how would a new state that currently relies on extensive subsidies from Denmark achieve economic viability? Although still reliant on fishing, sealing and tourism, there are rare earths yet to be exploited. The energy ministry has opened a market dialogue for investors to bid on large hydropower potentials on the southwest coast of Greenland. The stated project goals are sustainable energy, new jobs and income to the treasury from royalties and taxes. That revenue replacement will be critical for Greenland’s economic sovereignty.

And this summer a long-simmering Arctic dispute implicating Greenland was settled under international law. Hans Island is an uninhabited kidney shaped rock in the Naras Strait claimed by both Canada and Denmark whose citizens would visit and leave either bottles of whiskey or schnapps as a marker. On June 14, in the presence of ministers from Canada, Denmark and Greenland, liquor bottles were exchanged marking the settlement by treaty of the whiskey war. The Arctic, unlike much of the world, remains a rules-based order of international law – for now. That, too, is a lesson for Maine students in Greenland.

As independence approaches, direct shipping and commercial aviation will come. Following the recent diplomatic agreement over the Thule military base, the United States and Greenland agreed to a common plan and joint committee to advance opportunities across multiple sectors including trade, investment and education. This fall, the U.S.-Greenland Committee will meet in Maine.

This intergovernmental meeting in Portland will be a further catalyst to Maine Arctic training and research programs, including our partnership with the University of Greenland. Geopolitics and pandemics will have some effects, but next summer students from Maine will return to the field camp at Qassiarsuk on the edge of the fjord near the Eric the Red settlement. They will study ice, water, glaciers, the business of tourism, legal systems and research compliance. They will have a seat at a country’s march to independence. And they will be part of our well-prepared future workforce.

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