Arctic shipping updates offered at commission meeting in Nome

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent makes an approach to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard)
The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent makes an approach to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard)

Renewable energy and port development were the focus of the final session of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission’s two-day meeting in downtown Nome.

Lorraine Cordova, project manager for the Alaska Deep Draft Arctic Port Study, offered port updates to the crowd and research suggestions to the commission. She commended Nome’s Port Director Joy Baker and City Manager Josie Bahnke for their efforts in promoting Nome as the site of Alaska’s deep-draft port.

Although Port Clarence was in the running, its lack of infrastructure and Nome’s active sponsorship of the Alaska Deep Draft Arctic Port Study helped single out the city. The debate on whether Nome will commit to dredging as deep as the port will require is ongoing.

Kody Stitz from the U.S. Coast Guard also updated the commission on matters relating to Arctic shipping. Since 2010, the Coast Guard has conducted a Port Access Route Study in the Bering Sea. The study will determine the need for routing measures through the region. Currently, there are no speed restrictions, north and southbound lanes, or areas to be avoided from Unimak Pass in the Aleutians up through the Bering Strait.

Aside from a lack of routing measures, the Bering Sea’s nautical charts are outdated, presenting serious safety risks to vessels of all kinds.

“A really good example is the Fennica,” Stitz said. “The Fennica, just a couple of months ago coming out of Dutch Harbor, struck something and in the aftermath of that NOAA went out, did a survey, and we ended up finding an uncharted rock.”

The Coast Guard is working alongside NOAA to chart the Bering Sea and expects to have that work completed by the end of the year. Stitz said along with implementing routing measures, up-to-date nautical charts will encourage safe shipping through the route.

“One of the goals with putting down a route,” Stitz explained, “is that NOAA can now look at a couple thousand square miles of the route area and really give us a really accurate assessment.” Knowing just what lies on the seafloor will incentivize staying within the route’s boundaries.

“The shippers have a really strong incentive and the insurance carriers have a really strong incentive to say, ‘You know what if you’re going from A to B you’re going to follow this route to the maximum extent possible.’”

Stitz expects it will take at least year for the study’s findings to go through the Coast Guard, the State Department, and additional military branches for approval before finally approaching the International Maritime Organization. The complete process will take at least two to three years, Stitz said.

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