Kenneth Setzer

Nome’s (not) Burning.

Welcome to Nome

Because apparently it’s running out of gas and oil.

I’m lucky to have been to the great state of Alaska twice, and both times have been to the city of Nome. It’s famous for some cool reasons:

  • a 1900 gold rush and the ensuing drama
  • the 1925 diphtheria epidemic stopped only by the delivery of antitoxin by sled dogs (there’s a statue of the lead dog, Balto, in Central Park)

I’d like to cover some of these fascinating historical Nome nuggets (sorry). But for this post, history is being made now. As for that last bullet, in short, the first-ever standard gauge railroad in Alaska was built in Nome to transport gold to ships. Its brief run came to an end due to lack of money — not to mention its crooked tracks and melting tundra roadbed make it sound like a ride from a decrepit amusement park — and a massive storm sweeping in off the Bering Sea sealed the deal, washing away tracks and a bridge, but leaving locos, railcars, and twisted track there to this day.

A storm is once again at the heart of stranding Nome residents. This time, it’s causing a lack of fuel. Back in November 2011, a violent storm broke up and deposited huge chunks of ice into the Nome area, blocking a scheduled fuel shipment. So now shipping is hindered not only by frozen sea, but massive blocks of ice closer to land.

Though there seems to be enough oil for heating homes, gas and diesel could quickly be in short supply. To avoid this, a Russian double-hull tanker was contracted to deliver fuel, ice be damned. And in an odd twist, a U.S. Coast Guard ship capable of plowing a path through sea ice (though not technically an ice breaker) is leading a Russian tanker to the Seward Peninsula, and Nome:

It’s remarkable that in a world we think we control, the same obstacles early arctic explorers faced are still vexing us today. If you are wondering why fuel isn’t trucked into the area, it’s because no roads lead to Nome. You can only get there by dogsled, plane, or ship, and the cost of flying in fuel is exorbitant, making a gallon of gas cost the end user about $10+.

In a really cool twist, the U.S. Coast Guard ship now ensuring delivery of fuel to Nome, the Healy, is named for Captain Michael Healy, the man responsible for populating the Nome/Seward Peninsula area with caribou, which I wrote briefly about last December.

How perfectly fitting and appropriate that the man concerned about food supplies for the Seward Peninsula natives now has a namesake ship bringing the area’s residents fuel over a century later!

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