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A new route beyond the Last Frontier

The melting polar ice cap is opening the forbidding waters at the top of the world to shipping -- and intensifying concerns about regulating maritime operations and protecting the fragile environment.

October 11, 2009|Kim Murphy

NOME, ALASKA — Most days in Nome, you're not likely to run into anybody you didn't see at the Breakers Bar on Friday night. More than 500 roadless miles from Anchorage, rugged tundra and frigid Bering Sea waters have a way of discouraging visitors.

So it was a big deal when the World, a 644-foot 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 yet."

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 Coast Guard deployed its first small Arctic patrol vessels last year. Fleets of 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 base.

In fact, this town of about 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 last few summers has had cruise ships full of German tourists and Coast Guard patrol boats docking near its rudimentary landing facility.

"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 conditions.

Detailed terrain maps that meet international standards exist for only about 9% of the Arctic floor, and there are no reliable high-frequency communications systems.

The Coast Guard has just two operable icebreakers 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 iceberg.

"There's water where there didn't used to be, and we're responsible for it," Adm. Thad Allen, Coast Guard commandant, said in Nome this summer. "The real question is, what kind of presence and capability do we want to have up there?"

More than 6,000 ships 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 the top of Canada, saw periods of ice-free navigation in 2007 and 2008. Forecasts anticipate 120 or more largely ice-free transit days a year by the century's end. And last year's record-breaking ice melt for the first time opened both 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 Arctic minerals 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, 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 current operations. (They now 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 accessible.

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