Anchorage, Alaska : The cruise ship with about 1,000 passengers anchored off Nome, too big to squeeze into the tundra city’s tiny port. Its well-heeled tourists had to shimmy into small boats for another ride to shore.
It was 2016, and at the time, the cruise ship Serenity was the largest vessel ever to sail through the Northwest Passage.
But as the Arctic sea ice relents under the pressures of global warming and opens shipping lanes across the top of the world, more tourists are venturing to Nome — a northwest Alaska destination known better for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and its 1898 gold rush than luxury travel.
The problem remains: There’s no place to park the big boats. While smaller cruise ships are able to dock, officials say that of the dozen arriving this year, half will anchor offshore.
That’s expected to change as a $600 million-plus expansion makes Nome, population 3,500, the nation’s first deep-water Arctic port. The expansion, expected to be operational by the end of the decade, will accommodate not just larger cruise ships of up to 4,000 passengers, but cargo ships to deliver additional goods for the 60 Alaska Native villages in the region, and military vessels to counter the presence of Russian and Chinese ships in the Arctic.
It’s a prospect that excites business owners and officials in Nome, but concerns others who worry about the impact of additional tourists and vessel traffic on the environment and animals Alaska Natives depend on for subsistence.
The expansion will “support our local economy and the local artists here, the Indigenous artists having access to the visitors and teaching and sharing our culture and our language and how we make our beautiful art,” said Alice Bioff, an Inupiaq resident of Nome.
Bioff was a tour guide who greeted the Serenity’s passengers when they arrived in 2016. One of the guests admired her cloth kuspuk, a traditional Alaska Native garment similar to a smock, and wanted to know if it was water resistant.
The existing port causeway was completed in the mid-1980s. The expansion will be completed in three phases and effectively double its size. The first part of the project is funded by $250 million in federal infrastructure money with another $175 million from the Alaska Legislature. Field work is expected to begin next year.
Currently three ships can dock at once; the expanded dock will accommodate seven to 10.
Workers will dredge a new basin 40 feet (12.2 meters) deep, allowing large cruises ships, cargo vessels, and every U.S. military ship except aircraft carriers to dock, Port Director Joy Baker said.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, said the expanded port will become the centerpiece of U.S. strategic infrastructure in the Arctic.