New U.S. legislation speeds up the possibility of a Nome port

The Water Resources Development Act calls for the expedited completion of the feasibility report on Nome's deep-draft port expansion.

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Nome’s existing port would require significant upgrades to serve larger vessels. (City of Nome)

Last month, new U.S. federal legislation breathed new life into the possibility of a port in Nome.

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2018, part of a larger bill on water infrastructure, was signed into law on October 23. The legislation seeks to improve water infrastructure throughout the United States.

The bill calls for expedited completion of several feasibility reports, including a “project for navigation” in Nome — the expansion of its existing port into a deep-draft port. If that project is found to be “justified,” Nome will have the green light to pursue the next steps and “proceed directly to preconstruction planning, engineering, and design of the project.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first released a draft study on the feasibility of expanding the port of Nome into a deepwater port that could accommodate larger vessels in February 2015, but the study was paused a few months later when Shell announced they would not continue oil exploration in the U.S. Arctic, making the economic imperative of the port more uncertain.

Three years later, in February of this year, the Corps once again raised the prospect of a port in Nome, entering into an agreement with the city to examine the feasibility of “constructing navigation improvements.” In July, Bruce Sexauer, the chief of Army Corps Civil Works for the Alaska Branch, said they were at least six months away from releasing the final report.

The provision in the WRDA bill is intended to speed that process along, said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“A deep-water port in Nome represents more than just an infrastructure project — it is jobs, an expanded economy, and the portal to the Arctic and all that it holds,” she told ArcticToday.

But Murkowski doesn’t want to stop there; she has called not for one deepwater Arctic port but a system of ports.

“For Alaska and America to develop a strong presence in this new and evolving frontier, it’s necessary that we develop a system of ports,” she said.

Growing national security concerns in a changing region may be what finally moves the Nome project, at least, forward in Washington.

“As other countries work to seize these opportunities, we must do the same,” Murkowski said.

While Arctic security concerns are looming larger in Washington, experts cite other reasons for the port as well — from economic activity to search-and-rescue to research.

“We seem to be not really paying attention to this,” said Rear Admiral David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at the Pennsylvania State University, at a recent Wilson Center event on marine policy.

“If you’re going to have this kind of presence, and sustained presence, you want some degree of infrastructure,” he said.

The Alaska deepwater port nearest the Arctic is Dutch Harbor, some 1,000 miles away from the Arctic Circle.

“That’s a long way,” Titley said.

He predicted that in the next few decades, an Arctic deepwater port would find many different uses, “many of which we’re not even imagining.”

He compared this infrastructure project to the roads system in the United States. “Who would have known the interstate system would be used the way it is today?” he pointed out.

Other countries are exploring economic activities in the Arctic, including new shipping routes. If the U.S. takes prompt action, Titley said, “we can make ourselves a component of economic development.”

On the military side, he recommends a mixture of forces — air, surface and subsurface — in Arctic. But he also points out that any U.S. presence in the region goes a long way.

“We’re gonna want U.S. flags” in Arctic waters, he said. “That can be NOAA, that can be the Coast Guard, that can be the U.S. Navy.”

Rear Admiral Shep Smith, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, recently traveled to Nome and spoke with local officials about plans for developing the port.

“For our fleet, trying to do survey work in the Arctic, when we have to stage out of Dutch [Harbor] — what it really means is that we get one loop up into the Arctic per year,” he said at the Wilson Center.

“If we had a way to stage closer up, we could resupply, we could fix things that break, we could turn people over and keep our people fresh,” he said.

“We could operate up there probably twice as many days per year. It would make a really big difference to our operations.”

For now, he said, NOAA’s activities are limited to research, community resupply and “not much else.”

However, rapid environmental changes in the Arctic are bringing about many other changes. For example, he said, “the fishing industry may be drifting from Dutch up to Nome, as the ice recedes and the water warms.”

“That could be happening faster than we think,” he said. In that case, Arctic ports would become fishing supply bases as well.

The U.S. Coast Guard crew of the Healy recently completed their second Arctic trip in 2018 — a scientific mission on stratified ocean dynamics in the Arctic with the Office of Naval Research.

The mission studied the effects of decreasing ice cover on transportation in the region–and it was also made possible because of that decrease in ice. It’s unusual for the Healy — the only U.S. icebreaker operating in the Arctic — to be able to make a second trip, but as the region changes, more trips could become feasible.

“They added a trip this year because there’s a cold spot that has disappeared underneath St. Lawrence Island,” Richard Beneville, the mayor of Nome, explained. Changes in ice formation in the Arctic have led to an increase in traffic.

“The window has opened considerably,” he said, for larger ships to spend more time in the region.

Yet, he said, charting and research in the Arctic are still woefully inadequate. “The research is not enough,” Beneville said.

A Navy admiral once told him that the opening of the Arctic Ocean was like discovering the Mediterranean for the first time: “‘We know very little about it,’” he said, yet it will be crucial for maritime operations in the future.

The Bering Strait is one of only two routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the Northern Hemisphere, Beneville pointed out.

“It seems to be a no-brainer that there be more research,” he said. Expanding and deepening Arctic ports “makes perfect sense.”

“And Nome is the perfect place to do it. We have infrastructure, we have proximity, we have diversity.”

“So, I am all for it,” he said. He added that he’d also like to name Nome a home-port for NOAA and other agencies. “They are certainly welcome,” he said.

The Sikuliaq, a research vessel from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with ice-breaking capacities, already uses the existing port of Nome as a launching point into its Arctic research.

“As far as logistical support, it’s a godsend,” said Doug Baird, the Sikuliaq’s superintendent. “Otherwise, we’d have to go another three days south to Dutch Harbor. That saves basically a week of ship time.” Scientists and personnel can fly in and out of Nome, and fuel, food and other supplies are on hand.

But Baird says expanding and deepening this and other Arctic ports would make research much easier and more common.

“When it’s busy, there’s always a need for another port,” he said. “It would be nice to have other options.”

In busy times, he said, it’s difficult to find space in the harbor at Nome; only three docks can accommodate the Sikuliaq.

And when bad weather brings choppy waves, the harbor closes down “because the action of the swell causes the ships to move about quite a bit, and that negatively affects the infrastructure” of the port.

While current researchers already know about Nome’s capabilities, Baird said, larger ports might attract those who don’t already work in the Arctic, as well as bringing in more economic activity.

“Location is important, and Nome is well-situated,” he explained.

But he also mentioned proposals for other Arctic ports, such as an expanded port in Kotzebue — which also has an airport and the supplies these ships need. A potential Graphite Creek Mine could necessitate a new deepwater port at Port Clarence, as well.

“Infrastructure is key,” Baird said. “If we can’t get food, fuel and supplies, we have to go out of our way to go get it.”

The new WRDA legislation is a step in the right direction toward a Nome port. However, the next hurdle may be funding it.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Rear Admiral Jon White, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, said at the Wilson Center event. “Unfortunately, it’s not a no-coster.”

“One reason this isn’t happening is because nobody wants the bill,” he said. “It’s not politics, it’s money.”

Yet there’s significant interest from Congress in expanding Arctic infrastructure, he said.

“This should be an easy one to get done during this administration,” he said. “This should be an easy priority.”