Hometown U: New transportation routes in the Arctic

Kathleen McCoy
Photo by Jonathan Hutchinson

Will the Arctic turn out to be Alaska's post-Prudhoe Bay salvation? Or will Russia and Norway somehow beat us to the punch?

No one knows but what's clear is that transportation in the Arctic is developing, and a corridor along the northwest coast could make a difference in Alaska's economic future.

The idea comes from Andrew Metzger, a civil engineering professor at UAA. For the past four years he's been pondering the challenges and opportunities around Arctic infrastructure -- think offshore oil development, shipping, ports and harbors, and moving natural resources to market.

Two Arctic transportation corridors already exist: the Northwest Passage along the coast of North America connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific, and the Northern Sea Route from Murmansk in the Barents Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait and Far East.

Russia and Norway already have invested heavily in the Northern Sea Route. (Metzger calls those two countries the real "movers and shakers" in the Arctic, well ahead of Canada and the U.S.)

But according to Metzger, who spends lots of time at Arctic policy conferences here and in Washington, shipping won't boom immediately in the Arctic for a couple of reasons.

First, there's a lack of search and rescue and salvage capabilities along the routes. These services will be necessary for insurance companies to confidently underwrite Arctic voyages. Additionally, these routes have areas of shallow water. That decreases the volume-per-vessel capacity compared to, say, shipping through the Suez Canal.

One way to get Arctic offshore oil to market is to bring it over to Prudhoe Bay and down the trans-Alaska pipeline. But Metzger has another path in mind, an elevated rail/pipeline system starting near the Arctic offshore lease areas, running down Alaska's west coast through known and rich mining districts, all the way to Nome, where oil and other resources would head out to the world.

Rail cars would carry dry-bulk cargo, such as mining products. Pipelines would convey fluid cargo (oil from the lease area and, potentially, natural gas). "If you had a natural gas power plant on the North Slope, you might be able to wean the whole region off of diesel," Metzger said. "And those trains? They could be electric."

Within the hollow girder supporting the rail, he'd allow channels for power and communication. A fiber optic cable project due to link London to Tokyo through the Northwest Passage by the end of 2014 could use this corridor to connect northern Alaska coastal communities with areas in the Interior.

He calls it the Western Arctic Corridor, and even he calls it radical. But probability-based engineering design is his area, and "technically speaking, this could be feasible."

It's elevated because railways scar landscape and interfere with wildlife. He'd run the rail up on circular concrete girders drilled 60-100 feet into the ground, well below heaving permafrost. The entire system could be built from atop these elevated platforms, segment by segment. The technique has been used successfully to build bridges over sensitive habitat. Only survey and geotechnical engineering crews would have to work on the ground.

OK, so how to pay for this grand scheme? Customers, said Metzger, a blend of public and private interested parties.

"Transportation systems exist to provide service to customers. So the first step is to identify them. Next, look at specific corridors within the system. Corridors provide levels of service required by customers. Once you know the type and level of service they need, what needs to be built where becomes apparent."

The $64 million question: Who needs what service?

Likely customers include oil and gas companies moving crude to market from Arctic offshore leases, and miners moving coal from deposits in the Brooks Range, zinc from Red Dog and copper from Ambler. Then there's the federal government's missions of coastline security and public and environmental safety with the Coast Guard, seafloor mapping with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and ongoing work by agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Interior. China and Japan have expressed interest in this region too Metzger said, and could be considered potential corridor customers.

"The point is, if you're thoughtful about how you route the corridor, you can pull in paying customers all along the way. Now you have a customer base that can pay for the corridor but also generate revenue on an annual basis."

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U