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Bering Strait ship traffic grows, with Russia leading way and Alaska lagging

Alex DeMarban
The number of recorded vessels making the voyage through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia has nearly doubled over a four-year period, with 130 in 2009 and 250 in 2012. Loren Holmes photo

It's a tale of two Arctic nations, written across the top of the globe, with one moving rapidly to develop its resources for a booming Asian market and the other limping along with few facilities to support shipping.

The disparities collide at the 50-mile wide Bering Strait dividing Russia and America, a passageway where the U.S. Coast Guard monitors the ping of oceangoing vessels electronically signaling their whereabouts.

As governments look to capitalize on new resources and sea routes in the melting Arctic Ocean, Coast Guard figures show that the number of recorded vessels making the voyage through the strait in the ice-free summer nearly doubled over a four-year period, with 130 in 2009 growing to 250 in 2012.

Most of that increase is happening along Russia and the Northern Sea Route extending largely along that country, growth that's expected to continue this summer. Already, 190 vessels have applied for 2013 permits from a new Russian agency that's trying to bring even more traffic to the fabled route, according to a June article in tradewindsnews.com.

On the Russian side of the strait, vessels are often engaged in international trade, with countries such as Norway and Russia supplying increasingly hungry Asian markets with ore, oil and other products, officials said.

Activity on the U.S. side is mostly "destinational," local efforts involving tugs and barges that supply isolated villages with diesel fuel and other supplies, said Rob Hynes, a civilian intelligence officer monitoring vessels at the U.S. Coast Guard's Alaska headquarters in Juneau. Also seen in U.S. waters are research vessels and ships supporting oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

The lack of facilities on the U.S. side means vessels north of the Arctic Circle are often forced to make long trips through the strait simply to refuel in communities such as Nome.

In Russia, some of the more than 15 icebreakers owned by the government are positioned along the way to escort the freighters. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s two icebreakers will operate in Alaska this summer as the Coast Guard increases its summer presence, helped by the Polar Star’s return to action after four years on the injured list. That increased Coast Guard presence in Alaska also includes a newly arrived helicopter and support staff in Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska to conduct search-and-rescue missions.

Nature and geology are partly to blame for the discrepancies in activity, with shallow sea bottoms challenging the construction of a deep-sea port on the U.S. side, a project the Coast Guard is studying. Ice accumulation in the archipelago above Canada is another obstacle, while limited populations in Canada’s and Alaska’s arctic region reduce shipping needs there, said Hynes.

Few vessels travel the Northwest Passage above Alaska and Canada, but the numbers there are up too. Hynes counted 28 vessels making the trip last year, an increase from 17 the year before. A couple of cruise ships affiliated with a German cruise company, the Hanseatic and the Breman, are regulars. But most travelers come on adventure sailboats and yachts.

Hynes and other Coast Guard officials track the vessels to respond quickly to safety issues or pollution events, and to prevent terrorist acts or illegal activities such as fishing in closed waters. Because small vessels often don't have the technology to regularly signal their location, some of Hynes’ summer days involve tracking adventure sailors by following their blog updates as they stop at Alaska Native villages along the way.

Also boosting numbers on the U.S. side of the strait last summer was Shell's oil prospecting at two sites in the Arctic Ocean. All together, some 20 vessels journeyed between a distant staging port in Dutch Harbor more than 1,000 miles to the remote Arctic in the hunt for oil.  

Those efforts are on hold this summer: Shell's floating drill rigs continuing to undergo upgrades and repairs, with the Noble Discoverer in a South Korea shipyard, and the Kulluk that ran aground near Kodiak on New Year's Eve, sitting in a Singapore shipyard.

Despite Shell's decision to stand down this summer, Hynes think numbers on the U.S. side will increase again. One factor is work to be carried out by ExxonMobil atop northeast Alaska, where the American oil giant has begun efforts to produce and ship a small amount of natural gas condensate from the Point Thomson field.

As for the Russian side, the Northern Sea Route expects a "surge" of ship traffic, while a new Russian agency takes steps to increase the number of transits, according to the tradeswinds report.

The Northern Sea Route Administration plans to increase infrastructure and services for the fleet along the route, according to the article. Of the 190 applications for travel it's received so far, 116 have been permitted.  

"(The administration) has also been investing in its icebreaker fleet and encouraging owners to (try) different types of shipment along the passage," the report said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com