Could Alaska Be The New Center For Global Trade?

Alaska’s Bering Strait region is a very, very remote place It’s quiet; it’s wild; and it feels a world away from most global concerns

The Bering Strait itself is literally marginalized on most maps: it’s split between opposite ends of the globe, when in reality Alaska and Russia are just 53 miles apart All in all, the Bering Strait is rarely the center of the world’s attention But, that might change soon The epicenter of this story is Nome, Alaska – it’s a city of about 3,800 people, and sits right on the coast of the Bering sea It’s a frontier community with a boomtown history…gold was discovered here around the turn of the century, and the settlement briefly exploded to 20,000 people or more

and then collapsed back to around its present size by 1909 Now, more than a century later, there’s a very different boom on the horizon "The world is coming here…

About a hundred miles from here, the Bering Strait…It's huge It's changing the world… You open up the Bering Straits and you see what will happen, it's going to be phenomenal" That’s Richard Beneville, longtime Alaska resident and, as he’ll tell you, "I am happily the mayor of Nome

Isn’t that cool?" Richard’s only been in office since last October, but he arrived with plenty of enthusiasm for Nome, for Alaska on whole, and for spontaneous poetry "The Arctic light has seen strange sights but the queerest they ever did see, was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee" But: ask Richard about the Bering Strait, and he’ll pose you a thought experiment "If you think about the world, and if you picture in your mind the Northern Hemisphere Now you ask the question, how many ways can you get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the Northern Hemisphere? There are by water and there are two; the Panama Canal and the Bering Strait

" Historically, it’s been very difficult to get anywhere via the Straitsea ice in the Arctic is too thick in the winter, and the summer season is far too short Hence the Panama Canal

But here’s the thing: because of climate change, none of that is a given anymore Ice in the region is thinner and melting earlier, which opens the Arctic up to the world "Not only do you make the ocean more accessible for resources et cetera, you also have transportation and that is incredibly important" The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, and by 2050, entirely new shipping routes will open up across the globethrough the Northwest passage, across the Russia’s Northern coastand then through the Bering Strait

Many companies, [for example], have begun to ship goods between Shanghai, China and Hamburg, Germany through the Bering Strait instead of the Suez canal It’ll shorten the trip by almost 3,800 miles All of this means that Nome — quiet, frontier Nome — is actually poised to benefit from climate change "Nome is the only Port in all Western Alaska that has a dock and a small boat harborThe Bering Sea is not a place where you can just put down an anchor and stay out there Storms keep folks in ports for sometimes up to a month a time" Lucas Stotts is the Harbormaster in Nome He runs the port here, which is small but bursting at the seams

25 years ago, according to the mayor, there were 35 or 40 dockings in Nome Last year, there were more than 600 And if a proposed deep water port is funded, much bigger ships could dock here, improving the calculus of Bering Strait travel even more "I could see this becoming a major port for, not only Western Alaska, but for the region in general" The federal government has actually wanted a deep harbor in Western Alaska for a long time

Back in 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission actually proposed using nuclear bombs to blow a new harbor into existence to the North of the (Bering) Strait The project was ultimately scrapped due to (now obvious) health and safety concerns So today, most hopes for a bigger port, and for all its benefits, lie in Nome But not all of Alaska has found an upside to global warming In fact, just 70 miles from Nome, change is looking very different

"Everything's tied together Get less snow, that affects quite a bit of stuff You get a warming environment You get rain in the winter…That affects the animals

You get a layer of ice on the tundra They can't eat You notice spring time coming earlier, break up is earlier" This is what climate change looks like in Golovin, a predominantly native Alaskan community of around 150 people It’s one of 20-some-odd remote communities in the Bering Strait region

Most are accessible only by small aircraft, and all rely on subsistence hunting and gathering to sustain themselves Jack Fagerstrom is a lifelong resident of Golovin, and he’s watched as changes to the environment throw the subsistence rhythm into chaos Fish are less plentiful; edible berries disappear; thin ice makes seal and walrus hunts treacherous And the weather is a mystery "The weather

You live here long enough you can pretty much look around and tell what it’s going to do We used to be able to do that, but now the weather changes so quick it’s different" And those big storms in the Bering Sea? "Used to be a 50 year event Now it's happening every 2 or 3 years" Golovin sits on a tiny spit of land right on the water – making it vulnerable to autumn storm surges

This is what the town looked like in 2005 after one particularly nasty surge More storms like that, and the village could be gone for good Which could make the people here some of the first climate refugees Back in Nome, none of this is lost on the Mayor "The concerns about subsistence are very real concerns

our civilization has been expanding and expanding change can be very painful [But] you cannot ignore the native people You cannot It's their land, it's their resource" Still, he can’t help but be optimistic about the changes coming to Nome

"I wish sometimes people could see what I see In my heart What I see is a vibrant city growing to five, 6,000 people Having infrastructure improved [34:00] I see more tourism

I see more people and I see I see the world humming" What’s clear is that the whole world is starting to look towards the Bering Strait

To thawing shipping routes To new boomtowns And to communities falling into the sea There’s a lot to be learned from the North And the more we learn about what’s happening here, the more we have to change our perspective on the planet itself

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