Anchorage Press: Alaska's Murmansk?

In the autumn of 1916, the Russian Empire, engaged in World War I, founded the city of Romanov-on-the-Murman where the Tuloma River empties into a portion of the Barents Sea that stays ice-free year round.

Since Russia was allied with the powers of Western Europe, but geographically cut off by its enemies—Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire—the idea was that a new city on the Arctic Ocean, connected to the more populated areas of Russian by rail, would be a strategic port. Supplies and troops could come and go relatively unhindered, making an end run around the vast and chaotic battlefield that spanned Europe.

Today, of course, we know this city by the name of Murmansk. With a population of more than 330,000 at last count, it’s slightly larger than Anchorage. Lying at nearly 58 degrees of latitude north, it’s a little farther north than Point Hope—which makes it farther north than just about anywhere in Alaska except for a few other North Slope villages. Those two stats make it by far the largest city in the Arctic.

Its history makes it a good place to start looking if you want to know about ports in the Arctic.

Senator Lisa Murkowski does. In a five-sentence bulletin earlier this week—which seemed to have escaped the attention of most news outlets, both here and outside—the Associated Press reported that Murkowski had introduced a bill to start a two-year study on the question of an Arctic deep-water port. According to the AP, the study’s aim would be to “try to determine the best location for a port and what strategic capabilities it could provide. It also would look at the resources needed to establish a port.”

The whole point of having a port—should the study find that there’s a suitable location, that the costs are reasonable, and that the “strategic capabilities” are ample—would be to boost the United States’ presence in the Arctic Ocean and, if necessary, protect our “territorial claims and its economic interests in the Arctic.”

All this matters more—or seems to matter more—as diminished seasonal ice results in more shipping, more offshore oil exploration and even tourism in the Arctic. In 2007, a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag on the sea floor near the North Pole in a symbolic gesture that underscores its sweeping territorial claims there. And the U.S. has come late to the game of divvying up Arctic Ocean territory (though truthfully, most of our territory disputes are with Canada, a nation one hopes we needn’t have in mind when building “strategic ports”).

If the short history of Murmansk tells us anything about Arctic ports, it’s that—up until now, at least—their significance has been limited. For several years during World War II, Murmansk was the shipping terminal for convoys of British and American ships sending lend-lease supplies to the Soviet Union. It was effective enough that Germany launched an unsuccessful attack on the city from Finland. But beyond that, it’s tended to exist in relative anonymity.

Today, a nearby naval base is home to Russia’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers. The city has benefited somewhat from Russia’s oil and gas boom, and the climate there (remember, the port is ice-free year round thanks to warm Atlantic currents that spill into the Arctic) is more Anchorage than Chukchi Sea. Yet despite all of this, the population in Murmansk has been declining for some time.

Thanks to changes in technology in the past century or so, neither industry nor national security requires the kind of gigantic installations they once did or the manpower to operate them. So if a major port does eventually get built on Alaska’s Arctic coast, we can expect that it wouldn’t become a major city, or even, perhaps a major boost to the state’s economy.

To get a sense for what it might be, there’s another Arctic port worth looking at: Churchill, Manitoba. Churchill measures its population in the three digits, not the three hundred thousands. And although grain from the Canadian prairies does leave there by ship, transportation hasn’t exactly been a mainstay of the tiny town’s economy. There’s been excited talk about a so-called “Arctic Bridge”—a shipping link with (you guessed it) Murmansk, but to date the idea has borne little fruit. Instead, Churchill is known mainly as a place where tourists can come and expect to see a polar bear.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and nothing wrong with spending money on an Arctic port study. If anything, we can expect that the study will create or discover data and information that helps us understand a region we still know relatively little about. But for a state with a history of grandiosely envisioned mega-projects that rarely materialize, a little caution might be in order, too.

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Source: By Krestia DeGeorge. Published by the Anchroage Press on December 09, 2009