Last week, Egyptian crews finally freed the 1,300-foot cargo freighter Ever Given after it was stuck for six days in the Suez Canal, grinding much of international commerce to a halt. A week after it was cleared, transit through the canal has rebounded, but the incident illustrated the vulnerability of some global shipping chokepoints and the importance of alternate routes.
For shipping companies, the most promising of these routes would take ships from Europe via the Northern Sea Route, NSR for short, over the Siberian coast and through the Bering Strait. Traveling between China and central Europe by way of the NSR is 40 percent shorter than through the Suez Canal, and as Arctic sea ice recedes and icebreaking technology improves, it may be the next big development in international shipping.
This year for the first time, three Russian tankers ferried liquid natural gas through the Bering Strait during the darkest months of winter. The Nikolai Zubov came through in the beginning of January, and later that month the Christophe de Margerie and the Nikolay Yevgenov followed suit.
The ships are Arc7 Ice-Class tankers, specially designed to move through thin and spotty sea ice. In January, they sailed from Sabetta on the northern Russian coast to China without any icebreaker assistance. On the way back in February, at the height of ice thickness in the Siberian Arctic, they were escorted by Russian nuclear icebreakers.
While the transit of tankers through the strait in the dead of winter was unprecedented, the use of the NSR for commercial shipping is not. Norway’s Center for High North Logistics reported a record 62 transits in 2020, up from just 37 in 2019. Most of these transits were during the relatively ice-free summer and fall months, but as the climate warms and the ice recedes, the navigable timeframe is growing.
Technological innovations are also making Arctic shipping more viable. While the Suez Canal was at a standstill, Finnish engineering firm Aker Arctic announced their new icebreaking container ship, built to navigate thick winter sea ice without an escort.
While it will be some years before icebreaking cargo ships are widely used, their ultimate adoption appears inevitable.
So how is Nome and the rest of Western Alaska preparing for the coming influx of commercial traffic? “The big thing is, we’re really behind the eight ball with what’s going on in the Arctic compared to everybody else,” according to Tom Vaden, chair of Nome’s Local Emergency Planning Committee, LEPC for short.
In 2016 the region hosted an exercise called Arctic Chinook, which involved a wide range of agencies including the Coast Guard, Alaskan Command and six foreign nations. Vaden and the LEPC participated as well in a mock shipwreck south of the Bering Strait.
In the scenario, a large cruise ship filled with elderly passengers went down in high seas near Diomede. “They were going to take everyone to Tin City, and from Tin City they were going to take the injured people to Kotzebue, and the rest to Nome,” Vaden explained.
But the operation soon ran into problems. High winds blew down the temporary tents in Tin City, and the weather was so bad in the strait they decided any physical mock rescue would be too risky. Instead, they did a number of tabletop and communication exercises in Nome. The experience illustrated how ill-prepared the region is for an actual high-seas rescue, Vaden said. The ships going through the strait now are even bigger than the cruise ships five years ago, and they’re starting to come through at all times of year.
Another major concern is environmental pollution. Last August, an unexplained marine debris pulse saw plastic and organic trash washing up on regional beaches in alarming quantities. Many of the packages had Russian and Korean writing, but the source of the debris was never pinpointed.
Instead, regional communities took it upon themselves to clean plastic off their shores. Around the same time, a white oily substance started popping up around St. Lawrence Island, smothering birds and marine mammals
“As we learned from the 2020 debris event, our region is essentially on its own to respond,” said Kawerak Inc.’s Marine Advocate Austin Ahmasuk. “There are few resources to tackle debris events and I am not aware of dedicated funding coming our way for debris events or other necessary programmatic funding to protect public resources.”
An oil spill would be especially catastrophic, since many regional residents rely on its productive ecosystem for subsistence foods, and the area’s remoteness makes response especially challenging. Vaden said the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has oil booms in Nome and some other regional communities, but likely not enough in the event of a serious accident.
“A lot of people don’t understand that you can’t put boom out in the ocean if you’ve got ocean waves. It just doesn’t work,” Vaden said. “And if it’s under the ice, we’re pretty much all shafted.”
The Coast Guard currently only has two polar-class icebreakers, both of which are nearing the end of their lives and split their time between Alaska, the Atlantic Arctic and Antarctica.
While Congress approved funding for new icebreakers in December, it will be years before they’re built and operational. If one of the tankers had an accident passing through the ice, there would be no way for the U.S. to reach it.
In January, the tanker Nikolay Yevgenov came to a standstill in the sea ice north of the Bering Strait after a malfunction with one of its propellers. It eventually crawled out of the ice using its remaining propellors, but the incident had many in the region worried.
“Myself and others who were following this as it unfolded were greatly concerned. Our region may have only narrowly avoided a major catastrophe just a few months ago,” Ahmasuk said. “One can only imagine the potential impact of such a large vessel having a catastrophic failure in our remote region.”
Those concerns aren’t going totally unheard. In the summer of 2022, a number of military and disaster response organizations will hold a set of exercises called Arctic Eagle, which will happen simultaneously across Alaska. Part of the exercise will take place in Nome, playing out what would happen if the region were “under threat of attack from a near-peer adversary,” according to a presentation on the exercise.
Vaden said the exercise would see about 200 troops coming to Nome, although the precise details have yet to be hashed out. He said an increased military presence in the area would be critical as the Bering Strait becomes busier, both for security and disaster relief.
“We definitely need a U.S. presence in the Arctic. Right now we don’t have any,” he said. “I’m really hoping that with the port being built out, we’ll get a Coast Guard Sector Nome. It needs to be inevitable.”
The nearest Coast Guard base is currently in Kodiak. The Coast Guard also stations two rescue helicopters in Kotzebue during the summer months but has no year-round presence in the Arctic.
Scott McCann, a public affairs officer with Alaska’s Coast Guard district, couldn’t comment on future plans for expansion into the Arctic, but said they were monitoring the area closely and working with their counterparts in the Russian Border Guard to come up with ways to respond to emergencies.
“The Coast Guard has a long history of patrolling the Bering Strait and the polar region,” he said. “We could always use more assets, but we’re doing the best we can with what we got by employing them strategically.”
Ahmasuk said Kawerak recently met with the International Maritime Organization’s Pollution, Prevention and Response Sub-Committee to try to reduce pollutants from ships. “We were not immediately successful as international relations take years to materialize,” he said. They’ve also been trying to raise the issue with the Biden administration, but have yet to gain an audience.
In the meantime, the number of ships coming through the Bering Strait is likely only to increase. Ahmasuk said anyone in the region looking to learn more about shipping related concerns could email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and to report any evidence of an oil spill to the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.