So it was a big deal when the World - a 644-foot-long residential cruise ship
with condos costing several million dollars apiece - dropped anchor during the
summer for a two-day look-see.
"We never had a ship anywhere near this size before," Chamber of Commerce
director Mitch Erickson said. "My guess is they've probably been everywhere else
in the world, and now they're going to the places most people haven't seen
That's about to change.
The record shrinking of the polar ice cap is turning the forbidding waters at
the top of the world into important new shipping routes.
Four other cruise ships also docked in Nome recently. The U.S. Coast Guard
deployed its first small Arctic patrol vessels last year. Fleets of scientific
research vessels steamed north all summer, while ships surveying the vast oil
and gas deposits under the Arctic seabed have talked of using Nome as a
In fact, this town of 9,300 on the edge of the Bering Strait sees itself as
the gateway to a newly accessible maritime frontier. Nome's ship traffic is
eight times what it was in 1990, and the town recently spent close to $90
million renovating its port to accommodate bigger ships.
To the north, Kotzebue would like to build its own deep-water port a few
miles outside town. And Barrow, a remote Eskimo whaling village that sits at the
very top of the continent, for the past few summers has had cruise ships full of
German tourists and Coast Guard patrol boats docking near its rudimentary
"We can no longer assume," Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said at a congressional
hearing, "that the Arctic is an impenetrable barrier."
The coming shipping boom has intensified concerns about how to regulate
maritime operations and protect one of the most fragile and least-understood
environments on Earth.
Binding international rules on what kind of vessels can operate in the Arctic
do not exist. Nor do uniform regulations for routine waste discharges from
ships, or reliable protocols for cleaning up spills under extreme ice
Detailed terrain maps that meet international standards exist for only about
9 percent of the Arctic floor, and there are no reliable high-frequency
The Coast Guard has just two operable ice breakers in its fleet, and its
closest refueling station is 1,000 miles to the southeast in Kodiak, Alaska.
That's eight hours away by rescue helicopter should a cruise ship founder on an
"There's water where there didn't used to be, and we're responsible for it,"
Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said in Nome over the summer.
"The real question is: What kind of presence and capability do we want to have
More than 6,000 ships now ply the Arctic waters, according to one of the
first comprehensive studies of shipping in the region, completed by the
international Arctic Council in April.
The fabled Northwest Passage - linking the Atlantic and Pacific across
northern Canada - saw a period of ice-free navigation in 2007 and 2008. Climate
forecasts predict there could be 120 or more largely ice-free transit days each
year by the end of the century. And last year's record-breaking ice melt for the
first time opened the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage, above Russia,
for several weeks.
Two German cargo ships completed a rare transit of the Northeast Passage on
Sept. 7 when they sailed under escort by Russian icebreakers into the Siberian
port of Yamburg. The journey, one of the first by a Western merchant vessel,
began in South Korea in July and proceeded on to Europe.
The shortcut across Russia allows ships to travel the 8,700 miles from the
Korean Peninsula to Europe in 23 days, rather than the 11,000-mile, 32-day
voyage through the Suez Canal. Beluga Shipping, which operated the German ships,
estimated that it saved 200 tons of fuel per vessel.
The Arctic Council found that growing worldwide demand for minerals hidden in
the Arctic is playing an even bigger role than climate change in the opening of
new shipping routes in the far north.
Red Dog - the largest zinc mine in the world, located about 90 miles
northwest of Kotzebue - operates the only major U.S. marine cargo port in the
Arctic. Some of the largest ships in the world pull up off the mine's barren
stretch of frigid coastline, bound for markets all over the world.
Operators said they have no plans to expand operations or reroute their
Europe-bound vessels through the Northwest Passage as part of their operations.
(They travel south through the Panama Canal.)
But a longer ice-free period, said John Egan, the mine's operating manager,
means ore deposits in even more remote locations, including trillions of tons of
coal that have lain untapped beneath northwest Alaska, might soon be made
At Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, development is under way to ship 18
million tons a year of high-grade iron ore through icy waters to steel mills in
Norilsk Nickel, the biggest nickel and palladium producer in the world,
operating high in the Russian Arctic, earlier this year completed delivery of
its own ice-reinforced fleet.
And the Obama administration will decide soon whether to open up large
sections of the offshore Arctic in Alaska to access billions of barrels of oil
"What's really driving marine activity in the Arctic is not climate change,"
said Lawson Brigham, a former Coast Guard ice breaker commander who chaired the
marine shipping assessment for the Arctic Council. "It's global economics."
Rumbling up from Kodiak, Coast Guard C-130s twice a month conduct patrols
over the Arctic - surveying ice conditions, looking for potential security
threats, monitoring the barges that in the summer deliver fuel and supplies to
coastal villages and eyeing the busy oil and gas operations creeping steadily
seaward from the North Slope.
"There wasn't as much of a need to get up there before," Capt. William Deal,
commanding officer of the Coast Guard base at Kodiak, said as the plane prepared
to fly north to Kotzebue and - skimming 500 feet above the gray Arctic chop -
west over the Chukchi Sea. "But now we're trying to make sure we're ready for
A study of Coast Guard resources now under way is expected to determine
whether the agency needs a full forward operating base in the Arctic.
If one is built, Nome wants it.
"Our argument ... is that we're already established; our port is already
here. We just need to go out a little deeper," Mayor Denise Michels said.
But where will it lead, many here wonder, in a region whose villages have
been among the most isolated on Earth?
"There is increasing talk of Arctic shipping lanes, expanded fisheries, new
tourism opportunities and other competing uses," Barrow's mayor, Edward Itta,
told a panel of senior Obama administration officials who traveled to Anchorage
in August to deliberate what approach the government should take to the northern
"In the midst of all these claims, we are trying to preserve our traditional
use of our land," he said. "We are not afraid of change as Inupiat Eskimos. ...
But all of us know that change involves risk, and the risk of some of these
potential activities in the Arctic are substantial."
Traditional whalers worry that increased shipping and offshore oil and gas
operations could injure or scare away the whales that have supported residents
of the Arctic slope for generations.
"With the increased traffic - just like anywhere else - the more sound that
is put out there, especially the high pitches, that's extremely harmful to (the
whales). So they're naturally going to disappear or avoid you," said Roy
Mendenhall, who has hunted belugas from Kotzebue for years.
And conservationists fear that widespread shipping in the Arctic could triple
the region's ozone pollution and accelerate the melting of the ice, which
supports the walrus, seals and polar bears on which native Alaskans depend.
"The trade between Asia and Europe, that's what's driving it," said Tom
Okleasik, planning director for the Northern Arctic Borough in Kotzebue. "It's
about cutting multiple days off the shipping time. It's about what cuts costs
for multinational corporations. It's not about what's best for the Arctic
The warming seas, however, likely would result in one economic benefit of
particular interest to communities across Alaska's Arctic coast: Fuel must be
hauled in by barge, and the limited shipping window often locks towns into
accepting deliveries when gas and heating oil are at cripplingly high prices. A
longer ice-free season means more purchasing flexibility.
The majority of shipping here involves regional traffic rather than vessels
crossing the polar region. And analysts say that's not likely to change soon,
because even with the increased ice melt, the Northwest Passage is notoriously
unpredictable. Ten ships navigated the entire length last year, and nine ships
made it through in 2007. But this year the passage remained clogged with ice for
much of the summer.
The problem, said Trudy Wohlleben, a forecaster with the Canadian Ice
Service, is that heavy melting in the waterway allowed large chunks of ice from
the Arctic Ocean to flow in from the north, making for treacherous waters.
That's anathema to shipping, which depends on firm schedules and delivery
dates planned months in advance.
"If you've got a 40 percent savings in distance but you can't reliably
capture that savings, then regular Arctic shipping isn't going to happen," said
Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
Whether the route through Russia or Canada opens up, Nome expects its port to
be booming with oil and gas exploration vessels, delivery barges, tourist ships
and, once the region is opened for fishing, fleets of trawlers bound for Arctic
"My wife and I keep pinching ourselves in amazement," David Clyde, an
Australian tourist from Brisbane, said recently as he prepared to board a plane
at Nome after an Arctic cruise. "We kept saying, 'Are we really here watching
polar bears?' "
Leo Rasmussen, Nome's former mayor, said, "I think we're going to see a far
larger impact than we're even conceiving. People are going to be coming past
Alaska. And if we are there to offer the services to those ships that want to go
either way, if we're there to protect the ships while they're in our sphere of
influence, if we offer better services than our neighbor next door in Russia,
then we become the entrance and exit to the entire Arctic Ocean."
This article appeared on page A - 2 of the
San Francisco Chronicle