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Fuel Tanker Finally Reaches Iced-In Alaska Town

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The Russian-flagged tanker Renda makes its way through the Bering Sea ice on Jan. 8. The tanker arrived at Nome over the weekend. (Image via U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr)

The Russian tanker Renda, loaded with 1.3 million gallons of fuel, finally made it to Nome over the weekend, ending a journey that began in mid-December and involved breaking through more than 300 miles of ice. It followed a path plotted and sheared out by the U.S. Coast Guard’s currently only operating Arctic icebreaker, the Cutter Healy.

Nome is in the southern Seward Peninsula coast on Norton Sound of the Bering Sea (map). The region was originally used as a hunting ground by the Inupiat settlement of Sitnasuak, but the population grew due to the discovery of gold in the late 1800s and the region’s use as an airstrip in World War II. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census, the city population was 3,598.

The town uses oil, gasoline, and diesel to heat homes and offices and power vehicles, but missed its final pre-winter delivery of fuel by barge when a “super storm” swept the region in November 2011. In response, the Sitnasuak Native Corporation of Nome considered flying in fuel, but Chairman Jason Evans it would have taken more than 300 flights carrying 4,000 to 5,000 gallons each to meet the town’s needs. Corporation officials then decided to contract the Renda tanker, belonging to the Russian Expert and Marine Surveyors Corporation, to deliver the fuel.

The deal had to be cleared through the U.S. government, as the 1920 maritime Jones Act stipulates that only vessels whose owners and operators are U.S. companies are allowed to deliver petroleum products to Alaska. Authorities concluded that chartering the Russian tanker would be the best alternative, and an opportunity to learn the capabilities of the Healy icebreaker.

Healy set off on January 6, helping the barge navigate through ice up to three feet thick. The vessels made virtually no progress for much of Tuesday and Wednesday, pushed back by strong Bering Sea ocean currents and shifting ice. On Thursday, the effort was aided by camera-equipped drones leased from oil giant BP, which first used them to monitor its Gulf of Mexico spill. The drones are beaming back pictures of the ice to authorities as they try to plot the best possible route.

With a 25-foot ice ridge blocking access to the harbor, the Healy and Renda stopped at stable ice short of Nome’s harbor and are working to offload the fuel through a mile of hose on board the tanker (400 foot sections weighing 800 pounds apiece). It is estimated that transferring the 1.3 million gallons of fuel will take 45 hours.

The trip marks the first time a fuel tanker has reached a western Alaska town blocked off by winter sea ice. Coast Guard Capt. Craig Lloyd, who is coordinating the trip, said the town has enough fuel to last until March, but the delivery was attempted now before the sea ice was even more frozen through. Without the delivery, Nome could run short of fuel well before another barge arrives in late spring, forcing fuel to be flown in and raising prices as high as $9 a gallon.

While much of the continental U.S. has experienced a rather mild start to winter, many people in Alaska are facing a series of heavy snowfalls, breaking previous records and leading to crises similar to Nome’s. The Prince William Sound community of Cordova declared a state of emergency after being buried under 172 inches of snow since November 1. Anchorage has received over 80 inches of snow since July 1 — more than twice the average snowfall of 30.1 inches — and the only highway leading south out of Anchorage shut down last week.

Other Alaska communities are also facing potential fuel shortages this winter: the city of Kobuk tapped into a city reserve tank this week when a fuel supply was cancelled due to bad weather conditions. The airport manager is working to clear enough snow for a fuel delivery plane. Noatak has also been drawing on alternate sources for fuel, as heavy storms have put the city on an uncertain waiting list for future supplies.

According to Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters, the discrepancy in conditions is not a coincidence: “If you’re wondering where all of the snow that usually hits California’s Sierras and the northern tier of U.S. states is going, the answer is Southern Alaska.”

Masters and other meteorologists have pointed to two phenomena surrounding this winter: the Pacific weather phenomenon known as La Niña, and a strong Arctic Oscillation (AO) and North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which influence the path and strength of the jet stream (an air current that flows west to east across the northern latitudes of the U.S., Europe, and Asia). The oscillations reflect regional differences in atmospheric pressure at sea level, and this year have been some of the most extreme pressure differences on record, contributing to a strong, northerly jet stream–“the most extreme configuration of the jet stream ever recorded”–that is helping keep precipitation and cold air locked up in the Arctic.

Conversely, the NAO in winter 2011 had some of the lowest pressures ever observed, allowing Arctic air to descend, gather moisture, and drop snow onto the continental United States.