A Coast Guard icebreaker and a tanker carrying 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products could arrive in icebound Nome, Alaska, as early as Thursday, the Coast Guard said Tuesday.
The Sitnasuak Native Corp. of Nome contracted the double-hulled, Russian-flagged tanker Renda to deliver the fuel products to the community of 3,600 on Alaska's west coast after a ferocious November storm prevented the last delivery of the season via barge and ice formed over the Bering Sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard's only operating Arctic icebreaker, the cutter Healy, is escorting the fuel tanker through the ice-covered waters in the first-ever attempt to supply fuel to an Arctic Alaska settlement through sea ice.
The two-ship convoy was 97 miles from Nome early Tuesday, Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, told CNN.
The Healy battled through 50 miles of ice Monday, she said, stopping for crew rest and maintenance around 7:30 p.m. The journey was to resume at 7 a.m. local time Tuesday.
During the journey, the Healy has broken through ice ridges as high as 4 feet and plate ice up to 2 feet thick, Coast Guard Capt. Craig Lloyd, who is coordinating the mission, told CNN.
Francis said unmanned aircraft from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks equipped with ground-penetrating radar had flown over the ice, between the ships and Nome, and determined it was thinner than what the ships had been through so far.
The ships will have to break through about 300 miles of ice during the complete journey, the Coast Guard said.
The tanker will get to within about a half-mile of Nome harbor and transfer the fuel stocks to on-shore storage by hose, the Coast Guard said.
The cutter Healy was scheduled to return to its homeport of Seattle in December, but its mission was extended by several weeks to facilitate the fuel delivery.
Lloyd said Nome had enough fuel to last until about March, but the delivery was attempted now because it would have been even more difficult then.
There is no way to deliver fuel by land to Nome. If the Renda does not make it to Nome, officials would have to consider flying in fuel, an expensive proposition in a town where gas sells for almost $6 a gallon.