Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The challenges of serving an acutely remote (and very cold) place

Those challenges are highlighted in a drama playing out now in the Bering Sea, as reported here in today's New York Times. There, a Russian tanker carrying fuel, the Renda, accompanied by a Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy, are 140 miles south of Nome, Alaska. Nome, in far northwest Alaska, is running out of fuel because its final shipment of the year, typically made in early fall, was waylaid by bad weather. Now, the 4,000 residents of Nome (included in the 9,492 residents of the Nome Census Area)--along with the various oil exploration interests in the area--are anxiously awaiting the arrival of fuel reinforcements.

An excerpt from William Yardley's story follows. It compares the current drama to a 1925 one in which diphtheria swept through Nome. "No roads led [to Nome], flight was ruled out and Norton Sound was frozen solid." The life-saving treatment was ultimately delivered by sled dogs in what became known as the Great Race of Mercy, and that journey is still commemorated by the Iditarod each year. Yardley writes:
The tanker is slogging through sea ice behind a Coast Guard icebreaker, trying to bring not medicine but another commodity increasingly precious in remote parts of Alaska: fuel, 1.3 million gallons of emergency gasoline and diesel to heat snow-cloaked homes and power the growing number of trucks, sport utility vehicles, and snow machines that have long since replaced dogsleds.

For the moment, this latest tale appears less likely to produce a warm children's book than an embarrassing memo, and maybe a few lawsuits, about how it all could have been avoided
The story includes lots of interesting detail about the effort, including the distinction in capabilities between a medium-duty icebreaker like the Healy and its "heavy-duty polar" counterparts, which were not available for the effort. But it might all be summarized with the old adage, two steps forward, one step back. In short, no one is sure the Renda is going to make it to Nome this winter, in part because ice closes in around the Healy before the Renda can follow through the path cut open.

The drama of getting fuel to Nome aside, who's to blame for the failed autumn shipment? Who will be suing whom? And what is the role of the government in solving the problem? According to Yardley, many blame Bonanza Fuel, "one of two local companies that barge in fuel and the one that failed to ensure its fall delivery made it. But the fuel company's owner blamed the barge company for delaying shipments." Flying fuel in would add about $3/gallon to the cost, which is already $6/gallon in Nome.

As for the government's role, some ask whether "tiny Nome [is] worth all the effort"? But the situation has highlighted issues (such as Coast Guard capacity) that are likely to arise as Arctic exploration and Arctic shipping burgeon. Nome Mayor Denise Michels picks up on this theme in discussing the government's role (here, primarily in the form of the Coast Guard assistance) in getting Nome out of this pickle:
Why should we be treated any differently than the Lower 48? ... We keep saying we are an Arctic nation.
Michels notes that the Coast Guard provides escort for commercial shipments through ice and difficult conditions in the Great Lakes and elsewhere.

The story reminds me of the isolated, "fly in, fly out" mining communities I heard so much about when I was in Australia last year. It also reminds me of the Australian designation of "remote" communities, which are distinct from -- perhaps a subset of-- rural ones. Certainly, Nome would qualify as remote. Indeed, it may be sui generis in the U.S. context.

Elsewhere in Alaska, the coastal city of Cordova is snowed in See NPR coverage of both Alaskan events here. Another report on the record snow fall in Cordova, and what's being done about it, is here.

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