Multimillion-dollar expansion to make Port of Nome the first U.S. deepwater Arctic port

Expansion efforts at the Port of Nome, Alaska, will deepen port waters to 40 feet and create a combined 2,400 feet in dock length. Courtesy of Joy Baker

By Grace Renderman, Associate Editor 

A $600 million expansion project will boost capacity, improve throughput and establish the Port of Nome, Alaska, as the United States’ first Arctic deepwater port. 

The three-phase project at the port — where goods only arrive and depart via boat or plane — will add a new causeway and deepwater dock, extend the existing causeway and its docks and deepen port waters to 40 feet, says Port Director Joy Baker. 

The $600 million cost estimate comes from a feasibility study published in 2021 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the project. 

The first phase of the project — which will extend the existing causeway and add the deepwater dock, together the largest chunk of the planned improvements — costs $250 million, with a request for bids expected by November 2023 and an award given in spring 2024, Baker says. Most of Phase 1 is covered by $175 million in state funding the city of Nome received in fiscal-year 2022, with the remainder of funding coming from the Army Corps and federal, state and local funding channels. 

Phase 1 is expected to wrap up in 2028.

Collectively, the new docks will measure 2,400 feet long, enabling the port to more easily make adjustments to mooring vessels based on their size, Baker says. 

“Our vessel traffic has grown significantly [in recent years], so we spend a great deal of time running doubled-up schedules and having folks anchored offshore, waiting their turn at the dock,” Baker says. “When the new expansion comes, we'll be able to handle more and reduce the delays and congestion.” 

The existing causeway was built in 1985; the existing docks were added in 1989, 1991 and 2015. The Army Corps relocated the channel entrance between 2004 and 2005. 

Key commodities: Rock, sand and gravel

The port divides all commodities flowing through it into three categories: cargo, fuel and gravel (which is exported). Cargo is a catch-all for all other goods, ranging from groceries to medical supplies to building materials to heavy equipment to modular home projects and vehicles. Due to its location in icy Arctic waters, the port also is seasonal and only moves goods by air in the winter, Baker says. 

Between 2012 and 2021, the port annually averaged 59,259 tons of rock, sand and gravel; 31,156 tons of cargo; and 9.53 million gallons of refined petroleum products. Norton Sound Seafood Products, a wholesale seafood distributor, is a port tenant. The port serves an estimated 10,000 people in this rural stretch of western Alaska. 

The port sometimes receives passenger cruise ships, too — and once the expansion is complete, it also will receive U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels. The improvements will allow Nome to serve Legend-class National Security Cutters, the flagship vessels of the Coast Guard, and icebreaker vessels, which are designed to create safe pathways for other ships moving in ice-covered waters. Navy vessels often travel in these waters because of increasing foreign presences in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Strait, especially Russian development on the Northern Sea route, according to port officials. 

“When the [military] vessels are working in the Arctic — which reflects all of the maritime industries working in the Arctic — they need refueling, resupplies, medical, crew changes, mail pickup and all of those things,” Baker says. “The only thing we don't believe we'll be able to accommodate is an aircraft carrier.”