Alaska's Arctic coastline stretches from the mouth of the Kuskok-wim River along the western and far northern edges of the continent and east to the Canadian border, a distance of about 3,600 miles.
In that entire distance, the equivalent of one and a half times the distance from Maine to Key West along the US East Coast, there are no developed deep-water ports. And while communities such as Nome and Kotzebue do have ports, they are relatively shallow.
Alaska transportation companies have developed methods for offloading cargo using specially designed shallow-draft tugs and amphibious barges, but as Arctic ice thins and marine traffic increases, state, federal, and local entities are looking at opportunities for deepwater port development.
Regional officials foresee many opportunities in the future, notes Gail Schubert, president and CEO of Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC).
"In terms of the traffic that could eventually flow through the strait, there are all kinds of needs that will have to be met, facilities that could service some sectors of industry," Schubert says. "If it makes economic sense to develop a port facility, then the more there are, the better it will be, especially for the communities in terms of something happening out in the Bering Strait.
"We'd want to ensure there are services and supplies that could be utilized to deal with a situation that might arise."
Fred Smith, economic development director for the Northwest Arctic Borough, notes that the borough leader ship believes "one port isn't going to be enough. There's going to be a need for multiple port locations."
The borough, along with other regional entities and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, are working together to develop a deep-water port at Cape Blossom, about ten miles south of Kotzebue. A barge with a draff of nineteen feet would need approximately twenty-five feet of water for safe passage. Kotzebue's port is shallow, and a channel leading to it is only about five feet deep and could close completely in the future.
An immediate benefit to the port would be a reduction in fuel costs to the region, Smith says. He has prepared a chart showing the landed and retail costs of fuel for the eleven villages in the region.
"This year the water was high enough so a barge could get up to those upper Kobuk [River] communities," Smith says. "But a barge hasn't made it into Noatak for a number of years."
That means fuel has to be flown in, pushing up the cost of gasoline, as well as electricity. Some villages are paying nine dollars to ten dollars per gallon for fuel.
Even Kotzebue, which is...