‘Like a highway going right past us’: Nome grapples with its future as Arctic shipping traffic increases

a rocky beach
Currently, Nome’s port can only handle ships of a certain size, but an infusion of cash through the Biden Administrations 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act means an expansion of the existing port could make the region more inviting for larger vessels. In the future gold dredges like this might be dwarfed by the ships that would stop to dock here for fresh water and to deliver tourists for day trips. (Emily Schwing)

By 2050, ships traveling through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage may not need an icebreaker to escort them for the journey. In Nome, residents are wondering whether a new port will help or hinder efforts to address a myriad of chronic social problems. Some are also concerned that an onslaught of industrial marine traffic may impact Indigenous people, who have thrived along the coastline here for generations.

One warm summer day, Austin Ahmasuk stood on Nome’s sand spit. A light breeze blew against his face as he looked over the thin slice of land that lies at the mouth of the Snake River and stretches out in front of the city’s port.

“When you look up sand spit, Nome, and you look up historical photographs, you’re going to see Alaska Native people living here, celebrating here, harvesting here,” he said.

a man in a blue sweatshirt takes a selfie
Austin Ahmasuk grew up in Nome. (Photo courtesy Austin Ahmasuk)

Ahmasuk grew up in Nome. He has a lot of memories of this place, both good and bad.

“My uncle was working in the tugboat industry and he drowned right over here,” he said. “But I also have really fond memories growing up here, before all these rocks were here.” He pointed across the spit. “Cigar fish used to come here and spawn and so myself and a childhood friend — one of us had a box of matches and we cooked cigar fish on a rock and we spent most of the day here.”

A gold discovery here in the late 1890s brought 10,000 stampeders, all looking to get rich. Now, the melting ice caps have triggered another kind of stampede. Large industrial ships can travel through here faster — shaving days off transit times that would otherwise take them through the Panama Canal.

But, Ahmasuk said his memories and the legacy of the Iñupiat who have lived here for thousands of years, shouldn’t have to compete with the modern-day monetary gain some people hope to capitalize on as the Arctic becomes increasingly ice free.

“It’s like a highway going right past us now,” said Nome’s Harbormaster, Lucas Stotts.

Stotts sees Nome as the last pit stop before ships head through the Bering Strait and north into the Arctic.

water and grass
First appearing in the U.S. Census in 1900, Nome is home to a rich and intertwined history. It’s known now as a gold-rush era town, where people rushed in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s to strike it rich. Remnants of the gold rush still dot the tundra outside the city today. But this place has been home to the Iñupiat since long before the stampeders arrived. (Emily Schwing)

As the climate warms and sea ice along the northernmost coast of North America dwindles, all kinds of marine traffic — from cruise ships, to hobby sail boats to large-scale industrial ships — is picking up in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. According to the Arctic Council, marine traffic increased by 44% through the Northwest Passage between 2013 and 2019.

“There is a lot of traffic that currently isn’t coming into Nome,” Stotts said. ”That’s only because they’re too deep draft to come in.” 

Anything that rides deeper than 20 feet under the surface of the water can’t dock. He said that’s why Nome needs to expand its port. A $250 million dollar infusion of cash from the Biden Administration’s 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act means the basin could be nearly twice that deep in coming years. 

“We feel we’re already behind the times in terms of what is needed for the region and by the time this thing is built, I think we’ll be behind as we’re already at that point,” he said.

Nine cruise ships passed through Nome last summer, fewer than Stotts expected due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“We were going to have 24,” he said. “That is massive growth by itself and that industry isn’t basing that growth on our facility. That was happening well before any expansion was ever slated.”

Roughly half a mile from the harbor, at Pingo Bakery and Seafood House, things are pretty quiet after lunch service ends. The restaurant is tiny, with seating for 12, run by Erica Pryzmont. She’s not sure an influx of shipping traffic will influence her business.

“It’s interesting because sometimes the cruise ship visitors just sort of come to the threshold and peer in like you’re some sort of a curiosity or almost like you’re on exhibit,” she said.

a woman in a blue shirt simles at a table
“It’s interesting because sometimes the cruise ship visitors just sort of come to the threshold and peer in like you’re some sort of a curiosity or almost like you’re on exhibit,” said Pingo Bakery and Seafood House Erica Pryzmont. She said she’s more concerned with hiring and keeping good staff on hand than she is with whether a port expansion in Nome will raise her bottom line in coming years. (Emily Schwing)

Right now, she’s more concerned with trying to find and keep reliable staff to serve the clientele she already has.

A bright red “Help Wanted” sign hangs on her front door. While she’s looking for employees, others are looking for work. At 4.5%, the unemployment rate in Nome is higher than both the national and state averages. 

The Bering Straits region is also facing a serious housing shortage. The local emergency shelter is often full, especially in the winter. Chronic substance abuse is another social ill the community is fighting to manage. And, while there is federal funding for the port expansion, a local funding match is required. So, some residents believe the city should address the issues the community already faces, before assuming millions of dollars in debt the federal government requires in matching funds for the port expansion.

Nome’s Mayor John Handeland doesn’t see it that way.

“You know, if we build all these other resources first because we think we need it, it’s all on speculation,” he said. “And, I haven’t been successful going to my bank and, you know, getting a loan for something that’s purely speculative.”

a man poses for a portrait near the ocean
Nome’s Mayor John Handeland believes a port expansion will decrease the town’s cost of living while also boosting long-term investment in the community and bringing badly-needed jobs to town. (Emily Schwing)

Handeland said a port expansion will decrease the cost of living while simultaneously boosting long-term investment and available jobs in Nome.

Others in favor say it’s essential for national security. They say it will be crucial for environmental protection and emergency response as more ships traverse the Arctic Ocean in the future. But Austin Ahmasuk calls these “the three big lies.” He grew up in Nome and for years worked as a marine advocate and lobbied for improved food security for Alaska Natives through his Alaska Native Corporation Kawerak.

It certainly makes sense to shippers that cutting a thousand or so miles or a couple of thousand miles off is cheaper. Right. But it doesn’t mean that it’s less risky. You’re still going to the Arctic. It’s still going to be cold,” he said.

Declining sea ice allows more ships to pass through the Arctic. They are coming in larger numbers through the Bering Strait. With them, they bring more greenhouse gas emissions. At least 10% of ships utilizing Arctic waters today are burning heavy fuel oil, which if spilled, can solidify or remain floating for weeks in cold water.

“The weather is so changeable up here, and it’s shallow,” said Vernon Adkison. A lifelong mariner, he says the Bering Sea is not to be underestimated. “So when the wind really picks up, the seas build quicker than out in the middle of the deep blue sea.”

Adkison stars in the Discovery Channel’s reality show Bering Sea Gold. He’s depicted as a gruff and wry business man, with old-school beliefs and a no-nonsense approach to making money off Norton Sound’s rich ocean floor sediments. But he also has some misgivings.

When ships pull into port at Nome, many use much smaller boats to deliver cargo and people to shore. The process is known as lightering. It’s necessary, because the current port can’t accommodate ships over a certain size. Even with a port expansion, lightering would still need to happen. For Adkison, that means more accidents waiting to happen.

“I know what can go wrong in conditions with no eyeballs on the scene,” he said. “They’re out there littering and doing various things. I used to be a lightering master in the Gulf of Mexico, and I saw what some of those guys will do if there’s nobody watching. And then not everybody is ethical. There are bilges, there are spills, there are all kinds of things that can happen if there’s nobody really keeping eyes on the situation.”

The largest Coast Guard base in Alaska is located hundreds of miles south in Kodiak. It could take days to respond to a shipping related accident or spill in the Bering Strait.

“If it was up to me, I’d like to leave it the same as it is right now. I don’t know if I want to have to deal with all the bigger boats and the bigger industry-type scenario just right there where we start our hunting journeys,” said Ben Payenna.

He fishes commercially for crab, salmon and halibut and when he’s not catching fish as his sole source of income, he’s out on his boat, hunting for his family’s main sources of food: seal and fish, many different bird species and walrus.

“I was able to harvest my first one when I was seven,” he said. “I wasn’t really quite big enough to hold a rifle to my shoulder yet. And so my dad actually sat me in his lap and he held the rifle on his shoulder.”

Payenna said that the whole crew of men he used to hunt walrus with is now gone. And he wonders what else he might lose as declining sea ice makes way for more shipping traffic.

This ongoing series is made possible through a grant from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.

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