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Arctic port study highlights Nome, Port Clarence

Posted: February 15, 2013 - 1:06am

ANCHORAGE — Nome and nearby Port Clarence will get additional scrutiny as possible sites for a deep-water port for vessels in Arctic waters, according to a report by state and federal officials.

Nome, a historic Alaska Gold Rush community, and Port Clarence, which has served as a safe haven for mariners since whaling days and includes the small community of Teller, received top marks out of 14 locations reviewed for a port that could serve the increasing number of vessels transiting the northern Bering Sea to reach the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska’s northwest and north coast.

Both Nome and Port Clarence are south of the Bering Strait and the Arctic Circle. However, they’re far closer to Arctic waters than Kodiak, the nearest Coast Guard base, and a seven-day cutter voyage from northern waters.

The joint state-federal study grew out of a 2008 conference that anticipated the possibility of more merchant, petroleum development and tourism vessels as sea ice diminishes in Arctic waters because of climate warming.

Mike Lukshin, the state Department of Transportation engineer for ports and harbors, said Thursday the report is not binding. Actual port development generally is driven by local and federal authorities as well as private investment, he said. The report is an early step in a three-year planning process.

“We’re trying to be a good partner with local, private and federal entities,” Lukshin said.

The study area covered the Alaska coast from the mouth of the Kuskokwim River to the Canada border — 3,626 miles of coastline, roughly 1,600 more miles than the 2,069 miles from Maine to Key West, Fla.

The waters of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas are all are generally shallow, which makes them ideal for marine mammals and their prey but less than ideal for deep-draft ships. Supplying communities often involves lightering. For the northwest regional hub of Kotzebue, deep-water vessels anchor 15 miles from shore and ferry in goods.

State and Corps of Engineers officials looked at seven locations south of the Bering Strait including St. Paul, St. Lawrence and Nunivak islands and Bethel, Nome, Teller and Cape Darby, an uninhabited location between Iditarod Trail communities and Golovin and Elim.

North of the Being Strait, the study reviewed Kotzebue, Cape Thompson, Wainwright, Port Franklin, Barrow, Prudhoe Bay and the Mary Sachs Entrance, a channel between barrier islands 60 miles northeast of Prudhoe Bay.

Locations were evaluated based on their proximity to outer continental shelf petroleum lease areas or mining operations on the mainland. They ranked higher if they had intermodal connections such as jet service. Natural water depth that would avoid dredging was a plus.

Reviewers also factored hazards to navigation land ownership, roads, and environmental considerations.

Nome scored highly because of infrastructure already in place, including an airport with jet service and runways that allow a cross-wind approach, Lukshin said. Teller benefited from its road connection to Nome.

The Transportation Department is seeking comment on the report through Feb. 20.

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