The cruise vessel with approximately 1,000 guests had anchored off Nome, too huge to squeeze into the tiny port of tundra city. Its tourists reportedly had to shimmy into significantly small boats for yet another ride to the shore.
It was 2016, and at the time, the cruise vessel Serenity was the greatest vessel to sail via the Northwest Passage.
However, as the ice of the Arctic Sea relents under the pressure of global warming and opens up the shipping lanes across the top of the world, many more tourists are venturing toward Nome — a northwest Alaska destination popular more for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the 1898 gold rush compared to luxury travel.
The problem continues: There is no place to park the big boats. While smaller cruise vessels are capable of docking, officials mention that half of the dozen reaching this year will anchor offshore.
That is likely to transform into a $600 million+ expansion making Nome, with a population of 3,500, the nation’s first-ever deep-water Arctic port. The expansion, likely to be operational by the decade’s end, will be able to accommodate not larger cruise vessels of up to 4,000 guests but cargo vessels to deliver additional items for 60 Alaska Native villages in the region and military vessels to counter the presence of both Chinese and Russian vessels in the Arctic.
The prospect excites business owners and relevant officials in Nome. Still, it does concern others who are worried about the effect of additional tourists as well as vessel traffic on the environment and all the animals Alaska Natives are dependent on for subsistence.
The expansion aims to support the local economy and local and indigenous artists who have access to visitors and teach and share their culture and language and how they make beautiful art, stated Alice Bioff, an Inupiaq resident based in Nome.
Bioff, a tour guide, greeted the Serenity’s passengers as they returned in 2016. One of the guests admired her kuspuk, a traditional Alaska Native garment that she was wearing. A kuspuk is similar to a smock. The guest wanted to know if what she was wearing was water-resistant. It was not.
However, the interaction inspired Bioff to create her line of waterproof jackets similar to the kuspuks. She sells to locals and tourists alike from her Naataq Gear gift store, a retail spot in the post office building, where nearly 20 Alaska Native artists also offer beadwork, ivory carvings, or paintings via consignment.
Studies reflect that cruise ship passengers generally spend nearly $100 daily in Nome, Glenn Steckman, the city manager, said.
With the expansion, he has been hoping that guests on larger cruise vessels will extend their stay to experience more of the tundra and Nome, view its wild musk ox or sip a nice drink at its Board of Trade Saloon, which is 123 years old.
Climate change has made this possible.
Nome, discovered after gold had been found in 1898, has seen six of the ten warmest winters on record in this century alone. The Bering Strait shipping lanes have gotten busier since 2009.
On average, the Bering Sea ice typically reaches Nome around late November/December, two to three weeks later than it used to be 50 years ago, explained Rick Thoman, a climate expert associated with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Back in 2019, mushers in the Iditarod, who typically drive dog teams on the Bering Sea ice to the finish line in Nome, were compelled onto the beach due to open water. The ice season tends to get shorter, Thoman mentioned.
The existing port causeway was executed in the mid-1980s. The expansion will likely be done in three phases and double its size. The first part is funded by $250 million in federal infrastructure money, with an additional $175 million from the Alaska Legislature. The fieldwork is also likely to begin in 2023.
Currently, three vessels can dock simultaneously; the expanded dock can accommodate seven to 10 such ships.
Employees will dredge a new basin that is 40 feet deep, permitting large cruise vessels, cargo vessels, and all U.S. military ships except only the aircraft carriers to dock, Joy Baker, the Port Director, informed.
The expanded port is expected to become the centrepiece of the strategic infrastructure of the U.S. in the Arctic. The military has been building up its resources in Alaska, strategically placing its fighter jets at bases in Fairbanks and Anchorage, setting up a brand new Army airborne division based in Alaska, training its soldiers for cold-weather conflicts, and has missile defence abilities.
The northern seas near Alaska are starting to get more crowded. A U.S. Coast Guard patrol board has faced seven Russian and Chinese naval vessels cooperating in an exercise in 2022 approximately 86 miles north of Kiska Island, Alaska.
In 2021, coast guard vessels encountered Chinese vessels almost 50 miles off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
Last year, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, warned that China and Russia have pledged to extend their cooperation in the Arctic. This strategic collaboration challenges its values as well as interests.
However, the prospect of Nome wanting to welcome more tourists and increased military presence bothers some residents. An Inupiaq native, Austin Ahmasuk, said that the port’s first construction had displaced an area conventionally used for fishing or subsistence hunting, and the expansion would not help.
References: ABC News, Military Times, stltoday
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