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Treacherous sea ice delays fuel delivery to Nome, Alaska

January 9, 2012 |  8:37 pm

Renda tanker

Formidable ice up to 4 feet thick has delayed delivery of more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel to Nome, Alaska, and the Russian tanker plowing its way through the frozen sea now isn't expected to arrive until Thursday or Friday.

Crews on both the tanker Renda and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is clearing the way, had to stop for a 12-hour rest break until Monday morning after days of fighting their way through the relentless ice.

In some cases, the ice has been so thick that the Healy has opened a path for the Renda, only to see it close before the Renda could use it, forcing the Healy to circle around and reopen a path. 

"The ice is under enough pressure that once they break it up, it closes back up quickly," Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, a U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman, said in an interview with The Times.

Francis traveled to Nome last week to document preparations for the tanker's arrival.

"It was negative 32 when I was there the other day," she said. "So cold that I stepped off of the Coast Guard aircraft and took a breath and couldn't breathe."

A severe autumn storm on the Bering Sea blocked the fuel delivery scheduled to last the remote Alaskan outpost through the winter, prompting the unprecedented attempt at a winter delivery by sea. Flying in the fuel would be possible but extremely expensive, Nome officials say.

After clearing a web of bureaucratic hurdles associated with using a Russian tanker to make a U.S. delivery, the Renda and the Healy set sail northward on their 340-mile journey Jan. 4 from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

They have been churning through ice varying from 2 1/2 feet thick to pressure ridges 4 feet thick, Kathleen Cole, sea ice leader for the National Weather Service in Anchorage, told The Times in an interview.

"Part of the route has taken them through some very compact ice, what we'd call 10/10ths ... where you have the ice sheets and floes ... not solid, but push[ing] up against each other, and it's about as solid as you're going to get," she said.

By Monday evening, the ships were still about 100 nautical miles from Nome, prompting Tuesday's hoped-for arrival to be pushed back by two to three days.

Cole said the ships are expected to traverse some areas of thinner ice interspersed with more thick ice. "They're going to stay in that thinner ice as long as they can and make some headway," she said.

It's not clear precisely how close the vessels will be able to move into Nome's frozen harbor once they arrive to offload the fuel. Experts are measuring the ice and will make that determination when the vessels arrive, Francis said.

"It's been challenging, but it's a good learning experience for us," she said. "We haven't done this in Alaska before."

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 --Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: The Russian-flagged tanker Renda makes its way through the ice-covered Bering Sea on its way to Nome, Alaska. Credit: PA 3 Jonathan Lally/U.S. Coast Guard.

 

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