SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Maine can take advantage of a “historic shift” happening in global commerce to become a major logistical hub for North America, the president of Iceland said on Friday at an event organized by the Maine International Trade Center.
In the last four years, polar ice in the Arctic Ocean has receded to the point where northern shipping routes can be used to reach Asia from the North Atlantic.
“We in Iceland and you in Maine and Portland are fortunate to be located in a strategic position that enables us to make use of these extraordinary opportunities,” said Olafur Grimsson, president of Iceland, a country of roughly 320,000 people in the North Atlantic.
The recession of the polar ice has opened up the northern sea route, which is also known as the Northeast Passage, over the past several years. In 2009, a German shipping vessel became the first commercial vessel to use the route, according to The New York Times. In 2011, 18 vessels used the route, the newspaper reported.
Grimsson gave the keynote address at Maine International Trade Day, which was held at the Marriott at Sable Oaks in South Portland. The one-day event set a record for attendance with 352 attendees, according to Janine Bisaillon-Cary, director of the Maine International Trade Center.
Grimsson began his presentation by showing a traditional image of the world, with Maine and Iceland in the north and South America and Africa in the south. Then he showed another image of the world, this time from the perspective of looking down at the North Pole. From this angle, Maine, Atlantic Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Russia and Alaska all look like neighbors.
That’s the point, Grimsson said.
“Instead of looking at our planet the way I showed in the beginning we have to start looking at it from the top down,” he said. “Then we realize Iceland and Maine are strategically placed in this new global transport system, which is now emerging faster than anybody could have envisioned five or 10 years ago.”
Grimsson said the northern sea route from the eastern United States to Asia through the Arctic Ocean is 40 percent shorter than the traditional route through the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal.
Maine has an opportunity to benefit from this new reality, as does Iceland, Grimsson said. To take advantage of this new sea route, the United States needs a port in the northern part of the country that could be the logistical hub. There’s no reason Maine and Portland can’t be this hub, Grimsson said.
Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that in February announced it was making Portland its new North American headquarters, may be a good first step.
“The presence of Eimskip and its plans for using Portland in the coming years and decades as a major hub is proof that this is already an economic and commercial reality,” Grimsson said. “And therefore the plans that the city and the state need to do are not speculative. They simply need to adjust to an up-and-running commercial reality. … This could allow Portland to receive cargo from Europe, from Russia, the northern countries and in 10 years or so also from Asia and distribute it throughout the United States.”
Grimsson’s talk received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“The lover of ideas in me finds it visionary,” said Perry Newman, president of Atlantica Group LLC and a former president of the Maine International Trade Center. “I think it is remarkably creative. It’s taking advantage of the fact we have a potentially calamitous situation of global warming and they’re saying, ‘OK, this is an opportunity for us.’ I’d say it’s typical of Icelandic creativity — to make lemons out of lemonade.”
However, Maine is not a shoe-in for the role of North America’s logistical hub, Newman said.
“If [Grimsson] is right, if this Arctic strategy comes to fruition, we could be a major American hub for the northern shipping routes and that would be an opportunity that we would not fully be able to exploit if our infrastructure is not up to the task,” Newman said.
While discussion of the northern sea route has been high profile in Europe, Bisaillon-Cary said the discussion in the United States has not risen to the forefront yet.
“It seems so futuristic right now,” she said.
Bisaillon-Cary said she looked forward to discovering what the reaction of Maine’s business community would be to Grimsson’s vision and said it’s likely the Maine International Trade Center would plan an industry trade mission to Iceland in 2014, giving Eimskip and Maine businesses a chance to explore the relationship between the two countries.