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Abandoned boat on the shoreline with two whale bones forming an arch beside it. View of a flat empty sea in the background.

America’s small ports: The Port of Barrow, Alaska

PortandTerminal.com, December 27, 2019

Editor’s note: How many ports in the United States can you name? Remembering the top-10 ports should be reasonably easy for most of us in the maritime industry. But could you name another twenty or thirty American ports after that?

In this series, we’ll introduce you to some of America’s smaller, lesser-known ports. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, there are 360 commercial ports that serve the United States so we have plenty to choose from. In this first article, we’ll feature the Port of Barrow in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

The City of Utqiagvik, Alaska

Aerial view of the town of Utqiagvik, Alaska
The city of Utqiagvik, Alaska

The Port of Barrow, Alaska is located at the northernmost point of Alaska in a town of 4,500 people called Utqiagvik.

First a note about the city’s name. The city of Utqiagvik used to be called Barrow up until 2016 when town residents voted to change it to its traditional Inuit name, Utqiagvik. The town’s location has been home to the Iñupiat, an indigenous Inuit ethnic group, for more than 1,500 years.

Map of North America with the town of Utqiagvik, Alaska identified with a red dot.

Utqiagvik is the northernmost town in America, located 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It’s an incredibly remote place. Just to get to Anchorage, Alaska from Utqiagvik takes over three hours by plane. Los Angeles is almost 3,000 miles away. New York City is almost 5,000 miles away. Utqiagvik is closer to Tokyo and St Petersburg than it is to Washington DC.

And it’s cold. Utqiaġvik has the lowest average temperatures of cities in Alaska which is saying something. With the Arctic Ocean on three sides of the town, and flat tundra stretching some 200 miles to the south, there are no wind barriers or protected valleys to protect the exposed town.

Two polar bears in the snow in a photo taken at night.
Two polar bears spotted on the Utqiagvik runway (December 2017)

Freezing temperatures and snowfall can occur during any month of the year in Utqiagvik and they often do. The high temperature is above freezing on an average of only 120 days per year. Serious cold weather usually begins in January, and February is usually the coldest month, averaging −14.2 °F. The coldest February day on record was −56 °F.

View of downtown Utqiagvik, Alaska showing houses and cars with a view of the frozen sea in the background.
Downtown Utqiagvik

All supplies including basic food and medicine need to be brought into Utqiagvik by air which makes groceries incredibly expensive. A gallon of milk is reported to cost $10.

As a consequence, the 4,500 people who live in Utqiaġvik survive largely by hunting whales, seals, polar bears, walrus, waterfowl, caribou and catching fish from the Arctic Ocean or nearby rivers and lakes.

The Port of Barrow in Utqiagvik

Photo of three, black inflatable boats on the beach with a cruise ship in the distant background
Cruise ships call on the Port of Barrow during its brief, ice-free summer months. There are no docks for them though to moor at so visitors have to be brought in by rubber boats that land at the beach.

Utqiagvik is not connected by road to the rest of Alaska. The dirt roads that do exist end just a mile or so outside of town.

For just a few months over summer when the ocean unfreezes, the town is able to sail in goods that won’t fit on a plane — meaning locals who require a car or building materials have one shot a year to order it.

For the rest of the year, the airport is the lifeline of Utqiagvik. The town relies solely on planes to get vital supplies like food and medicine in and people out.

A view of the airport at Utqiagvik, Alaska with pick-up trucks parked by a hanger that has a sign saying Alaska Airlines on the exterior
The airport at Utqiagvik

Marine traffic in Utqiagvik though has increased in recent years due to a relatively ice-free Arctic.

Cargo barges deliver supplies to Barrow during ice-free months in the summer. Barges leave from Seattle on or about July 1 of each year and carry about 3,000 to 5,000 tons. The barges offload onto the Chukchi Sea beach, approximately four miles north of Barrow.

There is no “port” in the conventional sense of the word with cranes and piers. Cargo is brought in by the barges and offloaded at the beach. Here’s how the town of Utqiagvik describes the off-loading process:

Due to undeveloped shore-based infrastructure, unloading the barges in Barrow can be a risky and time-consuming task. Once in Barrow, if conditions permit, the line haul barge is put on the beach stern first and secured with lines to heavy pieces of equipment that serve as deadheads.
A landing craft is put alongside the line haul, and cargo is swung by crane to the landing craft, where it is unloaded by rubber-tired loaders. Although this is the quickest way to unload, sea and wind conditions have to be calm and consistent to unload the barge in this manner, and equipment available to hold the barge on the beach

Barrow Comprehensive Plan 2015-2035

There is pressure to build a small, conventional port at Utqiagvik. The town is located strategically at the northernmost point in the United States with access to the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as well as the Arctic Ocean.

Artists rendering showing the proposed location for a port in Utqiagvik, Alaska
Rendering of a potential port at Middle Salt Lagoon at Utqiagvik (Source: Barrow Comprehensive Plan 2015-2035)

Utqiagvik is also the staging ground for Chukchi and Western Beaufort Sea offshore oil and gas development. Thirty percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and natural gas liquids are estimated to occur in the Outer Continental Shelf and Circum-arctic region.

As the Arctic climate continues to warm and maritime traffic through the Northwest passage increases the town of Utqiagvik’s case for a small conventional port strengthens.

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