Coastal towns eager for ports as ice melts, ocean traffic picks up
NOME, Alaska -- On a blustery, cloud-covered day along the Bering Sea coast, Joy Baker, harbormaster for the Port of Nome, scanned her computer screen for a list of the ships lined up in Norton Sound waiting to enter the port.
"Yesterday we had seven vessels offshore waiting," Baker said. "Today's a slower day."
With the cold weather setting in, Nome residents were delighted to see fuel barges arrive the previous day to fill the city's oil holding tanks for the long winter. Last year's fuel shipment was delayed until late in the season, requiring the help of America's only operational icebreaker and a Russian oil tanker to cut a path through the frozen sea to the harbor.
The Port of Nome, the regional transportation hub for more than a dozen Bering Strait villages, was packed all summer. Large barges competed for space at the cargo dock while fishing boats and gold dredgers doubled up at the city dock and berthing facilities.
Nome Mayor Denise Michels said gold hunters descended on the city early this year when the Discovery Channel began broadcasting "Bering Sea Gold," a reality TV show. Over the course of the summer, 124 prospectors sought state permits to dredge along Nome's shores. City officials persuaded the state to close permitting after 88 requests were granted.
"We said we can't handle any more," Michels said. "We're maxed out. If we have a storm, we have nowhere to put them."
The popularity of Nome's port extends well beyond the gold dredgers. As the only U.S. port near the Bering Strait, Nome is becoming a regular stop for ships traveling in the Arctic each summer as higher temperatures keep the North Pole waters ice-free for longer periods.
Now Nome and other coastal communities in Alaska want to expand their ports to capitalize on the expected Arctic oil development, long-haul cargo vessels, military traffic and access to cheaper goods.
Nome is one of a handful of top contenders hoping to get funding for a deepwater port. Other Arctic villages are aiming to build medium-draft summer harbor facilities. The communities anticipate linking up to form a network of service providers for Alaska's expanding business and military ships.
The Coast Guard estimates that 410 vessels traveled through the Bering Strait last year, twice as many as in 2008. This summer, an average of 70 vessels operated in the U.S. Arctic each day, a volume that the Coast Guard predicts will dramatically increase as Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies explore for oil and gas in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
Alaska has more coastline than all other U.S. states combined. But the Port of Nome is the only harbor along Alaska's north and west shores equipped to handle medium-draft vessels, such as the Coast Guard's buoy tenders.
None of the region's ports can currently accommodate the large drilling vessels, cargo ships and ice cutters that require more than 30 feet of water. Those vessels must refuel in the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, located 700 miles south of Nome and 1,100 miles south of the energy industry's Arctic oil and gas leases.
Becoming a midcoast rest stop for Bering Sea ships could be big business for Nome, located about 125 miles south of the Bering Strait and home to 3,500 permanent residents, about half of whom are Native Alaskans. Michels estimated that a deepwater port would provide Nome with at least $1 million in revenue each year.
Another top candidate for a deepwater Arctic port is Kotzebue, a city located just north of the Bering Strait. Leaders from Nome and Kotzebue insist they support each other's port plans, arguing that Alaska will eventually need several new port facilities.