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USM, UMaine researchers explore change in Southern Greenland

Researchers in front of glacier

A group of researchers from the University of Southern Maine (USM) as well as from the University of Maine System recently completed a workshop in Greenland focused on the future of that region, the Arctic, Maine and the North Atlantic.

The team of 16 researchers from USM, the University of Maine (UMaine) and the University of Maine School of Law (Maine Law) embarked on the “Arctic Futures Workshop” June 21-29. 

The purpose, according to Charles Norchi, director of the Center for Oceans and Coastal Law and Graduate Law Programs at Maine Law, was to experience first-hand the challenges the region faces in wake of a changing climate and socioeconomic landscape — then, through a multidisciplinary approach, address those issues and relate them to similar ones facing Maine.

“The group was collegial, committed and brought complementary skill sets to our endeavor,” Norchi said.

The workshop was organized by Norchi and Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at UMaine. Together, the two serve as co-chairs of the Arctic Futures Institute (AFI), an endeavor of the World Ocean Observatory and Center for Oceans and Coastal Law.

The workshop was the AFI’s second project, Norchi said, and was supported with funds from the University of Maine System Research Reinvestment Fund, USM’s Maine Economic Improvement Fund (MEIF), the Maine Center for Professional and Graduate Studies and the University of Maine Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School.

The multi-disciplinary team brought together researchers in marine and climate sciences, law, art and public policy.

Researchers from USM, UMaine and Maine LawAttending from USM were Firooza Pavri, director of the Muskie School of Public Service and professor of geography; Matthew Bampton, professor of geography; Jan Piribeck, professor of digital art and foundations; and Vinton Valentine, director of the USM Geographic Information Systems program.

In addition to Norchi, attending from Maine Law was Jeffrey Thaler, visiting associate professor.  

In their time on the world’s largest island, the group examined change and preservation of the Kujataa region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Greenland. There, they met with people and other researchers, experienced the landscape and learned about the challenges posed by a changing global environment and economy.

Bampton described his personal experience meeting with Greenlanders saying Maine, as well as others, can learn a lot from their way of life.

“Local guides, scholars, farmers and community members shared with us their knowledge of how landscapes are changing, and how they are adapting to everything from increasing tourist traffic to the opportunities and threats presented by potential rapid economic development,” Bampton said. “I was profoundly affected by the knowledge and understanding our hosts brought to our discussion of complex questions about past events and future prospects.”

Additionally, Greenland is the only independent, self-governed indigenous nation in North America, a factor Bampton considers significant given its history as a “bridge” between European, Indigenous and non-indigenous North American populations. 

“Greenlanders have adapted to radically changing environments for millennia. Modern Greenland represents a remarkable, and I believe unprecedented, combination of these cultures,” Bampton said. “Adaptability and resilience to cultural, economic, and environmental change seems to be one of the fundamental structural elements of their way of life. We can learn a lot from them.”

Pavri, of USM’s Muskie School, said the workshop was an enriching experience that would inform her own future research.

“Traveling, experiencing and learning about Greenland along with a multidisciplinary team of researchers provided us insights into disciplinary approaches to confronting complex issues like climate change,” Pavri said. “We learned from the people of Greenland, researchers engaged in Arctic work and each other, all while experiencing the dramatic landscape of icecap, fjords, icebergs and coastal communities living along the edges.”

Piribeck, who on Sept. 5 spoke at a presentation about Portland and South Portland’s dual “One Climate Future” plan to address climate change, said the trip directly related to her work as an artist. 

“I am very interested in making work about environmental change, and also see great potential in developing cultural exchanges, particularly ones that bring Greenlandic artists together with Maine artists,” said Piribeck, whose work in the exhibition “Melt Down” is currently on display at the Portland Public Library until Sept. 21.

Additionally, Piribeck said, the arts can fill gaps in qualitative data between other disciplines when examining the complexities of change in the Arctic.

“Trips such as the South Greenland expedition foster interdisciplinary research and learning and lead to collaborations between faculty and students from throughout the UMaine System,” she said. “I am very happy to be part of this.”

Iceberg at Qalerallit Imaa FjordPavri, discussing greater system-wide research collaboration, agreed.

“Our faculty and staff have been actively engaging with Arctic partner institutions for some years now,” she said. “The USM team that attended the Greenland workshop hopes that we can build similarly successful partnerships across the UMaine System and with Greenland that will provide opportunities for our students and faculty.”

As Pavri said, USM has been a pioneer in forging relationships with institutions in the Arctic and North Atlantic.  

In October 2018, the university unveiled plans for the Maine North Atlantic Institute, which will bring together ongoing projects in those regions to forge greater business, educational and social connections to address global workforce needs. 

USM has previously established — and continues to nurture — educational partnerships between Reykjavik University in Iceland and the University of Tromsø in Norway, and businesses such as Whole Oceans


By Alan Bennett // Office of Public Affairs

Photos courtesy Jan Piribeck