Nome mayor casts city as Arctic partner at Arctic Encounter gathering
ANCHORAGE – Mayor of Nome, John Handeland, appeared before an international convention in Anchorage, March 29, which addressed geopolitics in a melting Arctic and Nome’s role as a key partner in these affairs.
Mr. Handeland arrived at the gathering as the mayor who managed to secure vital funding through a once-in-a-generation federal spending package to advance the first deep draft Arctic port in the United States. The multi-use maritime project has been discussed in Nome for at least forty years. “Most people thought it was a pipe dream before we were fortunate to get funding,” Handeland said at the meeting, which brought together ambassadors, government officials, scientists, Indigenous leaders, and business representatives across 25 nations.
At the talks, known as the Arctic Encounter Symposium, he spoke of how the City of Nome was successful in securing a competitive $250 million grant through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021. The appropriation bill provides unprecedented levels of funding to improve the country’s transportation, water, energy, and broadband systems. In addition to the federal award, the City of Nome is expecting the State of Alaska to provide $175 million more to complete the first of three phases of the project.
Handeland’s presentation of the deep water port proposal came on the first day of the three-day convening which focused not so much on the rapidly diminishing sea ice in the Circumpolar North where warming is occurring at four times the global rate, but on new dynamics over how Arctic nations are negotiating the region’s once inaccessible shipping routes now targeted for resource exploitation and heavy militarization.
“This is just a very exciting time for the Arctic, the nation, and the State of Alaska, and we’re starting to catch up,” Handeland said.
For the second year in a row, the Russian invasion of Ukraine drove dialogue at the symposium which has been held annually since 2013. And like last year, there was no representative from Russia in a formal capacity to join the convention, though all other seven Arctic nations were represented. For years, Moscow has been ramping up its military and commerce presence in the region while Alaska lawmakers have long argued that the U.S. lags behind in such strategies. There is also increasing concern about a developing partnership between Russia and China.
These reasons alone were why some leaders of various industries and sectors at the gathering expressed support for the Port of Nome’s expansion project. While not technically in the Arctic, the proposed 40-foot basin is largely seen by proponents as a “strategic” extension to activity in the greater region because of its location in the Bering Sea which serves as a gateway to the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.
A deep draft Port of Nome would allow U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers and Navy warships to be able to be docked there, and there is bipartisan support for a bill that, if passed, would ensure that such ships would have a permanent presence in Nome. The Arctic Commitment Act, introduced last fall by senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Angus King (I-ME), would authorize a wide range of actions by federal agencies to leverage Arctic interests, including defense, trade, and scientific research in the High North. But the bill does not allow for any concessions in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Speaking at a press conference at the symposium on March 31, Murkowski said climate policy was “not necessarily” something that should be included in the Arctic Commitment Act. The senator instead re-emphasized a call to invest and lead in the planet’s melting ice cap where extracting oil and gas, and shipping valuable minerals was once not feasible. “As we build out these resources, I think we recognize [they] are necessary not only for those in the Nome region but as we look to the opening of the Arctic, what it will mean to the United States to have this key and strategic port.”
“It needs to be understood that what we do in the next few years, between now and 2030, is going to determine whether we really have a shot at reducing the future impacts of climate change to a manageable level,” said Dr. John Holdren, research professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Co-Director of the Belfar Center for Science and International Affairs. “It’s absolutely crucial that we talk about the availability of approaches that will reduce the harm.”
Dr. Holdren, a former advisor under President Barack Obama, shared the stage at the conference with other scientists and Indigenous knowledge keepers. Each panelist discussed the distressing environmental realities they’ve witnessed in the Arctic, including how rapid sea ice decline is setting in motion an interconnected climate calamity for the entire region. Warming waters have led to permafrost melt which, in turn, has spurred the release of toxins long-frozen into the soil – to the point where animal and human health are now threatened, as well as an ocean-sized food web. Meanwhile, this chain reaction, according to Dr. Holdren, is happening much faster than predicted.
And there was more gloomy news. Dr. Larry Hinzman, Assistant Director of Polar Sciences for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, drew attention to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis report released less than two weeks before the Arctic Encounters gathering convened in Anchorage. Even if every country in the world delivered on its current climate pledges to align with the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement – to keep global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030 – it probably still would not be enough, he noted.
“That’s just seven years away,” said Dr. Hinzman who is also Executive Director of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee. “There’s definitely no question that climate change is getting away from us.”
For Yup’ik Elder, Vera Kingeekuk Metcalf who lives in Nome and is Executive Director of the Alaska Eskimo Walrus Commission, the climate crisis is a dark reminder of early colonization on the Arctic centuries ago which brought diseases that wiped out Indigenous communities by explorers who overhunted the regional food supply. “And so climate change to me is like we are reliving that,” said Metcalf. “We were wiped out and our marine mammals were taken. And that’s what climate change is doing to us.”
Witnessing climate change
At age 62, Mayor Handeland is not blind to the fact that Nome’s shoulder seasons on each end of winter are extending. In fact, in his remarks at the symposium, he seemed convinced that these dramatic shifts in the weather were worsening and were inevitable. “I probably won’t be alive when it’s Hawaii weather up there,” he said, attempting to make light of the situation. “But I expect it will be.”
He also added that these climate-aware insights are helping to build a port, not for today, but to sustain tomorrow. “Global warming is certainly something that is on our minds.”
When ex-Typhoon Merbok slammed into the Norton Sound last fall, flooding Nome’s Snake River and destroying fish camps and subsistence harvests, Handeland said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-examined the design for the port project and found that it was structurally sound to sustain subsequent storms.
The $665 million expansion, as of March, would almost double the length of the existing port’s western causeway – an L-shaped breakwater that would extend 2,100 feet into Norton Sound, equipped with three docks large enough to handle larger vessels like icebreakers and Navy carriers. The basin serving the new docks would also need to be dredged deeper, to at least a depth of 40 feet.
The mayor downplayed concerns raised by two state lawmakers last month suggesting that the Alaska Legislature may rescind some of the $175 million appropriated last year for the project. The money would go toward the city’s cost-share obligation and was crucial to secure the $250 million grant under the IIJA, allocated to the Army Corps of Engineers for the Nome port project.
So far, no funding agreement has been signed by the City of Nome, according to Handeland.
Meanwhile, the mayor made no mention in his remarks about the additional funds needed to respond to a growing population surge expected by the port expansion, including the need for more housing, an enhanced education and healthcare system, and maintenance of existing roads. This came as no surprise to some Nome residents, particularly those critical of the promoted militarization of the region, but who have also declined to speak to The Nome Nugget on the record for fear of backlash in opposing the project.
“I’m not belittling people for having those feelings,” Mr. Handeland said in response to the criticism. “And I’m not white-washing the past,” he said in historical reference to the uneven outcomes that defense measures have often had on Indigenous land and life. “But things are changing in the world and in our region. It’s better to have the military closer than far away.”
Handeland mentioned Nome’s history of troops embedded in the community dating as far back as the Alaska Territorial Guard, through World War II, the Cold War, and across both Desert Storm operations that deployed Nome-based National Guardsmen and women. He explained that residents should feel safe knowing that any threats posed by potential Arctic aggression would have access to immediate response systems in place. “If something’s going to happen, defense forces are closer.”
Youth at the table
Zoe Maniq Okleasik, an Arctic Youth Ambassador who attended the conference, said she is still learning about the port expansion project and its potential impact on her home community of Nome. But the issue is one reason she joined the ambassador program created by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“My grandfather grew up in Nome, my father grew up there. It’s where I grew up,” said Okleasik, 19. “We need to think about our future generations to come, how they would think about this port project, because it not only affects us, it affects our children and children’s children.”
She encouraged more youth to be brought to the decision-making table, if for nothing else, to gauge when over-expansion, population surge, or any other by-product of colonizing the Arctic further disrupts the fabric of her lifeblood community. One indicator she mentioned as an example was the recent bottom-up generosity afforded to her family after her older sister Ivory broke her back during the Nome-Golovin Snowmachine race and became paralyzed.
“Everyone just made sure we were taken care of,” said Okleasik. “That’s the amazing thing about ome. We have a deep care for everyone. Even if you’re not from Nome, we take you in.”
“I hope that never changes.”