Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Developing Arctic Infrastructure: Assembly Required


October 1, 2019

DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or interests of the US Department of Transportation or the US government.

In the August issue we looked at the financing required to support expanded arctic traffic ( Specifically, who will pay for the much-needed infrastructure upgrades required to keep the US, its ships and their operators safe and productive on the country’s fourth coast. For any challenge, including arctic maritime infrastructure, a conceptual framework is helpful when specific and actionable steps are identified and an end goal is articulated. Without these, it is impossible to understand where the project started, and more importantly, where the finish line is and how to define success. This month we’ll explore where the conversation on arctic infrastructure has been and where it needs to go to make sure the region is ready for whatever comes next.

PART II: Infrastructure

Let’s begin by dissecting the term “infrastructure.” Generally, a conversation about infrastructure conjures images of hard things; things held together by cement, rebar, and miles and miles of steel or rock. These are tangible things, things on which you can stand or hang a hat, and possibly a name. But infrastructure, especially in the high North, is much more. Yes, there are ports, docks, buildings, warehouses, and tank farms for fuel; but these only begin the discussion by identifying physical infrastructure. There are also buoys, aids to navigation, sensors, waste storage, lodging, accommodation, and hospitality.

All of these physical pieces fit together to form a working waterfront – which is critical, particularly for areas that remain unconnected by road or rail, like 80 percent of Alaska. But these assets don’t function in a vacuum. A functional maritime transportation system, local, regional, or global, also depends on communication: ship to ship, ship to shore, person to person. The ability to pass information whether in the form of charts, weather, navigation warning and notifications, ice reports or other conflicts, via phone, fax, or email all rely on the underlying information infrastructure of a region.

Finally, whether you are a captain of a vessel, captain of the port, Harbor master, pilot, fisherman, cook, hotel manager, or operations manager, it is the people, the human infrastructure, that are the keystone element of the system. The biggest port, with the nicest equipment will never be successful without competent professionals to operate it. Right now, the US arctic has gaps in all of these categories.

But it isn’t enough to say, “we need infrastructure”. That declaration in and of itself creates an in-surmountable problem. It is the equivalent of looking at a coffee pot and saying, “we need coffee”. Rather, the statement should be, “that coffee pot needs to be plugged in”. Then the directive becomes, coffee: finely ground, dark roast; filters: number six, cone shape; water: cold, filtered. Or you could just order a medium, half-calf, mocha latte with an extra shot and call it a day. While this is a massive oversimplification, if the maritime community can come together and identify these kinds of specific, actionable requirements, then it is possible to move toward addressing the gaps.

The US arctic presents a rare set of circumstances for development. Unlike most regions, the relative lack of development means that infrastructure can be designed from the permafrost up, in ways that maximize the utility of the infrastructure while also integrating the unique requirements of the region, from engineering to community to changing environmental considerations.

There are essentially three categories of ports in arctic Alaska: Moderately developed, lightly developed, and less-developed. For those ports with moderate development, some shore-side and upland infrastructure exist. These are ports that may act as transshipment points for cargos originating outside of the State or at major ports in southern Alaska that need to be redistributed to smaller or remote communities. These are the critical “hubs” of a hub and spoke model. These ports are the most constrained for development because critical infrastructure, physical and otherwise, already exist and are in regular use. These ports must grow within the current space limitations of their location and need to be particularly focused on operational and needs-based questions.

Currently, Nome, Alaska is the only US port north of 60N (the definition for the Polar Code arctic) that can accommodate larger vessels. Although the port is currently constrained by a number of factors like maximum draft, dock and landing space and some upland infrastructure, Nome is still the transshipment hub of the region, serving an increasing customer base and supporting the increasing maritime needs of the region.

Nome is ahead of the curve in recognizing their port limitations and is actively working with US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and their local, state, and federal partners to complete a feasibility study to expand the port and meet future needs in addition to a number of improvements that have already been made.

For moderately developed ports in the pan-Arctic, the question is how to adapt the existing infrastructure to meet future needs. Part of that is identifying the specific requirements and metrics so that improvement plans and strategies are targeted. For example, how much deeper does the port need to be? How many more feet of dock space are required? Is there adequate lay down space? How much additional energy will be required? What will the staff and support needs be?

Lightly developed ports in Alaska often serve a specific community or set of communities, generally connected by local roads or accessible by trails. These ports have the opportunity to expand, but may need to be relocated to areas that can accommodate that expansion. For example, the original port only allows in shallow draft barges, which was OK when the community was smaller and the needs were different. Overtime, the needs have changed, and the current port is no longer able to meet the requirements while maintaining efficiency and cost-effectiveness for the community. In this case, the current port assets need to be reallocated or redistributed to a new location. This may mean moving or reconstructing critical assets like fuel tank farms, along with fuel headers and fuel lines, rerouting or constructing new roads, new energy infrastructure, moving large equipment and constructing new outbuildings like offices.

Kotzebue, Alaska just north of the arctic Circle faces this issue, but is working toward developing additional port infrastructure in a new location. This will require the relocation of current assets in addition to the development of new waterfront infrastructure that can connect the town to the port. The town is actively working with USACE on a feasibility study for a small boat Harbor and expanded port area and has already begun work on a road to connect the new facility with the town.

For ports facing similar issues, the critical questions include: What are the limiting factors this new project overcomes? How can future needs and conditions be incorporated to extend the project from a right now to a 100-year project? How will this improved asset fit within the existing port net-work/framework? and critically, what is the desired role for the new facility within the network?

To be clear: Less-developed ports aren’t necessarily located in less developed areas of arctic Alaska. These are towns and communities that lack hard port infrastructure. They generally rely on barges and landing craft to pull up to a gravel, or possibly cement, shoreline area and unload without the aid of any port or dock infrastructure. These locations have limited to no cargo storage facilities and may transport commodities like fuel through floating fuel hoses and lines linking a barge just off-shore with fuel headers and tanks just onshore. These conditions mean that cargo deliveries are particularly susceptible to delay or disruption from weather and ice events that could restrict or prevent the vessels from operating and offloading.

Despite having some of the least developed hard infrastructure, these locations have the most opportunity to design built-for-purpose systems, specifically tailored to local conditions and the requirements of the community. As activity in-creases, it will become particularly critical that these locations are able to develop using the best available engineering, taking into consideration current and future operations because they are often located in particularly harsh areas where run of the mill, average port designs are not appropriate.

Utqiagvik, Alaska is an example of one of the largest US arctic communities with some of the least developed maritime infrastructure, but some of the greatest opportunity for built-for-purpose facilities. Located at the top of the world, the environment, weather and ice conditions, and operational challenges mean that infrastructure development will be unlike anywhere else in Alaska. Their unique location also attracts scientists, researchers and tourists from around the world requiring facilities and systems to meet their specific needs in addition to serving as the hub of the North Slope for surrounding villages. All of these elements come together to create an opportunity for development that places Utqiagvik within the existing arctic supply-chain network, but with the ability to create unparalleled facilities and services for their unique customer base.

Utqiagvik is currently working on a project to harden the shoreline to prevent erosion of existing road infrastructure and to protect fresh water resources that serve the community.

There are three critical considerations for ports at similar development stages: Identify sustainable, resilient development options tailored to right now and future requirements; Create unique capacity through identifying the gaps only this new port asset can fill; and Identify continuity with existing transportation/ infra-structure systems to make informed and strategic decisions about how to develop within the existing system.

For these port categories and the local examples, it would be hypocritical to perpetuate the idea that there is no infrastructure because communities are acting, planning, and responding. Recognizing these actions and plans is a first step to push back on the refrain “we need infrastructure” and its implicit statement that nothing is being done to address known gaps.

It is easy to think about infrastructure as just a port, or just a dock – but critical to remember that just a port with a ship does no good without the ability to unload it, refuel it, and redistribute whatever cargo is on it. One way to better understand the connectivity of maritime for the arctic is to recognize that everything from Mack trucks to macaroni comes on board ships – this includes cars, materials for housing (sometimes entire prefab houses), rock, gravel, and asphalt for roads, tires, trucks, pallets of water, cereal, and pasta – even the fuel for planes at the airport comes on a ship. The USPS may have coined the phrase, but nowhere does it fit better: if it fits, it ships.

While the traditional definition of just a ship at just a port likely covered tug and barge traffic and subsistence vessels, the arctic is changing. Now just a ship could be anything from a tug and barge to a science or research vessel, fishing boat, yacht, sailboat or even a 2,000 passenger cruise ship. As the arctic becomes more accessible, the ships are changing and so are the shore-side requirements. Yes, ports will need to be deeper, docks will need to be constructed – offloading passengers into Zodiacs to come ashore is dangerous and time consuming when you have a thousand to move and only 15 to a boat – but other supporting infrastructure, physical, informational, and human, is also required.

As these new requirements emerge, it is critically important to recognize that development of infrastructure to support maritime growth, at whatever port development stage, are the same kinds of infrastructure that other transportation requirements will have, along with the community. Right now, parts of Alaska lack some major elements of critical infrastructure: reliable and affordable power, adequate water and sewage facilities and distribution networks, state of the art telephone and cable service and connectivity, sufficient housing, accessible healthcare, regular employment opportunities, resilient engineering to adapt to climate and permafrost changes, among others. All of these elements are interconnected to development of marine transportation and the build out of infrastructure to support growing maritime activity. Pretty much any facility constructed or developed for a port will have benefits for, or connectivity back to, the community and the region, and the opportunity to enhance existing services. The recognition of this interconnectivity across modes and regions is what provides the opportunity and incentive for critically needed investment strategies to provide not just the assets for maritime growth but for regional economic growth and stability.

Operators in the region are crucial sources of information that can help identify the regional and community specific requirements to streamline and improve services. This extends from dock requirements to areas of known navigation hazards that can be identified on charts and added to future charting requirements. It includes identifying emerging technologies and practices for improved communication along increasingly crowded waterways and informing folks in the region when business plans, transportation schedules, and operations change.

Operators can and should extend past just those operating commercial vessels, and include those aboard research vessels, tourism vessels and, without a doubt, subsistence vessels. It should also include discussions with the local airports – commercial lines and small operators as well as the city or borough that is responsible for municipal services like power, sewage, and water. Increasing tourism to the arctic region, for example, without the space to house visitors and scientists, provide essential services and hospitality and, in an emergency, adequate medical care, will not create a stable environment for those sectors to grow and benefit the community. The same is true for natural resource development and extraction – the services must be developed along with the industry so communities and Alaskans aren’t left behind while other sectors export the benefits of the region.

To be successful, infrastructure solutions will need to be innovative, transformative, adaptive and resilient. Just like the people of the region. The approach must bring together more than just armchair arctic experts and create a nexus between regional operators with expertise, community leaders who can identify the needs and opportunities, and regional planners, who can reach back for input from heavy hitters in government and the private sector. This cohesive approach can create mechanisms to invest in these opportunities through specific and targeted steps that will transcend the statement “we need infrastructure” and develop a network of pro-jects that lead to success for businesses and communities. Through this kind of cooperation, recognized gaps will be addressed so that the future of the arctic includes Alaska as a successful participant and not just a continuing topic of debate in Washington.

Dr. Azzara is an international trade specialist for the US Maritime Administration who holds degrees in Oceanography and Marine Biology with more than 16 deep-sea research cruises and a total of a year of days at sea. Her involvement in arctic issues began in 2012, leading to multiple reports, publications, and presentations on arctic marine shipping, vessel activity projections, infrastructure requirements and investment frameworks.


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