In 2016, the Serenity cruise ship with approximately 1,000 passengers anchored off the coast of Nome, Alaska, as it was too large to fit into the small port of the tundra city.
The wealthy tourists on board had to transfer to smaller boats to reach the shore. This event was noteworthy as the Serenity cruise ship was the largest vessel ever to navigate the Northwest Passage.
With the Arctic sea ice melting due to global warming and opening up shipping routes across the top of the world, Nome is becoming a more popular destination for tourists.
This northwest Alaskan town is renowned for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the 1898 gold rush, rather than luxury travel. However, the opening of new shipping lanes in the area is drawing more tourists to Nome.
However, the major problem with Nome is that there is no space to accommodate large ships. While smaller cruise ships are able to dock, officials stated that half of the dozen scheduled to arrive this year will have to anchor offshore.
This issue is expected to change with the expansion of Nome, which is set to become the nation’s first deep-water Arctic port.
The expansion, anticipated to be operational by the end of this decade, will provide space for larger cruise ships of up to 4,000 passengers, cargo ships to transport further goods for the 60 Alaska Native villages in the area, and military vessels to counter the presence of Russian and Chinese ships in the Arctic. The expansion is expected to cost over $600 million.
Although the prospect of Nome’s expansion as a deep-water Arctic port excites business owners and officials, it concerns others who fear the impact of additional tourists and vessel traffic on the environment and animals that Alaska Natives depend on for subsistence.
On the other hand, Alice Bioff, an Inupiaq resident of Nome, believes that the expansion will support the local economy and Indigenous artists, as it will give them access to visitors who can learn and appreciate their culture and art.
As a tour guide who welcomed the Serenity’s passengers in 2016, Bioff remembers how one of the guests admired her traditional Alaska Native garment called a kuspuk and was interested in knowing if it was water-resistant.
Although Bioff’s kuspuk was not water-resistant, it inspired her to create a new line of waterproof jackets designed like kuspuks. These jackets have become popular among tourists and locals alike and are sold at her Naataq Gear gift store, which is located in the post office building.
Around 20 Alaska Native artists offer their works such as ivory carvings, beadwork or paintings through consignment at the store.
According to city manager Glenn Steckman, studies have shown that cruise ship passengers typically spend about $100 per day in Nome. With the expansion, Steckman hopes that visitors on larger cruise ships will extend their stays to explore more of Nome and the tundra, view wild musk ox, and sample drinks at the historic 123-year-old Board of Trade Saloon.
Climate change is the driving force behind the expansion of Nome as an important deep-draft Arctic port. Six of the ten warmest winters on record in Nome have been recorded in this century alone since its founding after the 1898 gold rush. The frequency of shipping in the Bering Strait has increased from 262 transits in 2009 to 509 in 2022.
Nome Mayor John Handeland predicts that other Arctic ports will follow suit and adopt deep-draft standards. The average arrival time of sea ice in Nome has also shifted from late November or December, which is about two to three weeks later than it did 50 years ago, as per Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The changing landscape of the Iditarod race in 2019, where mushers were compelled to navigate the beach due to open water on the Bering Sea ice, serves as a stark reminder of the impact of climate change. As the ice season continues to shorten, it is imperative that we address the evolving needs of this iconic event.
The completion of the existing port causeway in the mid-1980s was a significant milestone in facilitating the transportation of goods and services to Nome.
However, with the impending expansion, the port will undergo a transformative growth that will effectively double its size. This ambitious endeavor will be carried out in three phases, with the first phase being funded by a substantial 175 million from the Alaska Legislature.
Anticipated to commence next year, the field work associated with this expansion project will undoubtedly bring about a multitude of benefits.
Notably, the upgraded dock will have the capacity to accommodate seven to ten ships simultaneously, a substantial increase from the current capacity of three. This enhanced capacity will undoubtedly bolster economic activity in the region, as it will facilitate the efficient movement of goods and foster increased trade opportunities.
As we embark on this pivotal endeavor, it is crucial that we remain cognizant of the larger context within which it is taking place. The shrinking ice season and the subsequent challenges faced by mushers in the Iditarod race serve as a poignant reminder of the urgent need to address climate change and its far-reaching consequences.
While the expansion of the port causeway is a commendable step towards improving infrastructure, it is imperative that we continue to prioritize sustainable practices and explore innovative solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The Port of Nome in Alaska is set to undergo a major expansion, with a new basin being dredged to a depth of 40 feet (12.2 meters) to enable large cruise ships, cargo vessels, and almost every type of US military ship except aircraft carriers to dock. US Rep. Dan Sullivan has described the new infrastructure as the centerpiece of the US’s strategic infrastructure in the Arctic, where it is building up military resources to place fighter jets, Army airborne divisions, and missile defense capabilities in Alaska.
The expanding strategic importance of the region has attracted Chinese and Russian naval vessels, leading to concerns from some Nome residents who object to the loss of traditional hunting or fishing areas, and fear of the impact of the expected tourist influx and increased military presence.
In conclusion, the impending expansion of the port causeway in Nome represents a significant investment in the region’s infrastructure. This project will not only enhance the capacity of the dock, but also stimulate economic growth and trade opportunities.
However, it is essential that we remain mindful of the broader environmental challenges we face, such as the diminishing ice season. By simultaneously addressing these concerns, we can work towards a sustainable future for both the Iditarod race and the Nome community as a whole.