No roads to Nome
North to the future was a movie featuring John Wayne as the Nome gold digger who was to pick up his friend’s and companion’s fiancee in Seattle. The movie illustrated that back in the Gold Rush times, Nome had no harbor. All goods and passengers had to be brought to the beach on barges. Still today, Nome has no port due to geological-technical reasons, for which still barges are used. Like in 1925, still today, Nome is off the Alaska road-net. There is no road to Nome.
Storm in the Bering Sea hindered last fall fuel delivery
In November 2011, I saw man-high waves breaking at the shore of Nome on TV. A massive Bering-Sea storm hauled over the town. The noise from the wind and waves barely allowed listening to the Nome resident’s comments. He had provided the footage to his Anchorage TV moderator daughter. This storm prevented the last, prior-to-winter delivery of fuel to Nome.
I had already forgotten about this broadcast. Shortly after New Year, it was on the news. The bitter-cold winter put Nome at risk to run out of fuel by March! The Bering Sea sea-ice reached far south. However, transportation by trucks over the sea-ice is impossible. Off the coast of Nome, winds and currents move sea-ice permanently, cracking and piling it up and creating areas open in between. These currents in the Norton Sound also contribute to difficult to travel sea-ice like back in the old time of the serum run to Nome).
Coming home postponed for the Healy crew
The coast-guards’ only ice-breaker Healy was on its way to Seattle. The crew was looking forward to meet their families after more than six weeks at sea, when the Healy received command to head towards Dutch Harbor, a port in the Aleutian Islands. They were to meet with an ice-strengthened Russian oil-tanker and break her the way to Nome. At the same time, the empty MT Renda raced thru the icy waters from Southeastern Russia to pick up fuel at Dutch Harbor.
Difficulties by law and no experience
The catch? First, nobody had ever delivered fuel to Nome in the depth of winter. Second, the Jones Act reserved US vessels the right to deliver fuel to Nome, but the MT Renda was a Russian vessel. A Congressional Waiver was needed for rescuing Nome.
As the ships came closer to Nome, the ice became really nasty and thick. An unmanned aircraft of the University of Alaska Fairbanks armed with a video camera patrolled the sea-ice to collect footage for decision support and identification of the safest and easiest way thru the ice. Meanwhile sea-ice scientists supported by locals examined the ice on shore as the tanker would only come as close as the distance usually covered by barges.
Building an emergency pipeline
A pipeline with all environmental safety features was build over the ice. It covered the last stretch of transport for the fuel needed to keep homes warm and save, and the local traffic rolling until May when the Bering Sea would allow normal shipping.
Can you imaging what it means to have no fuel for home heating and energy generation at 40 below?
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Photos: G. Kramm
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