1. Shell drills, Coast Guard beefs up Arctic presence
As Shell Oil geared up to drill a planned five offshore wells in the Arctic in 2012, opposition was still fighting fiercely early in the year against the proposed oil exploration, launching lawsuits and legal challenges of the company's federal permits. Those legal challenges failed, however, and Shell moved forward with its plans in the summer, only to have equipment permit issues as well as late sea ice slow its plans significantly.
In May, the company was still waiting on two permits to get the green light for drilling operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, but ice was already looking like an issue. By August, the company announced it had downgraded its plans to two exploratory wells, but was still stymied by ice as well as permitting issues with its spill response barge. Shell finally put its drill on the ocean floor in September, but was limited to preliminary drilling operations due to its oil response barge not being present.
The Coast Guard stationed two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and associated personnel in Barrow in 2012, in part because of the increased activity relating to Shell's exploration. Coast Guard vessels also visited the region to conduct oil spill tests as well as participate in other exercises in the Arctic.
2. Nomes icebreaking oil delivery
On Jan. 14, the 370-foot Russian fuel tanker Renda, accompanied by the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking cutter Healy, broke through the final stretch of ice and prepared to transfer 1.3 million gallons of fuel to Nome's low tanks. Nome had run into trouble after an expected fuel delivery didn't make it before the ice moved in. Meanwhile, the state plunged into a cold snap that produced 40-to-50-below temperatures, and many other Arctic communities were scrambling. Noatak and Kobuk were both running on empty early last year, waiting for plane availability to receive fuel. Red Dog Mine stepped in to help with the supply until reserves were built up, but even so, the high cost of heating homes in the north in 2012 caused many families economic hardship.
In Nome, however, the fuel shortage was questioned by some, and called a political stunt by others. Jason Evans, chairman of the Sitnasuak Native Corporation, and one of the orchestrators of the operation, said, however, that the town needed the delivery. While Nome might have squeaked through with the heating oil it had, it would have almost certainly run out of gas to power the town's vehicles, he said.
"We wouldn't have gone through all of this effort if there was no reason," he said.
The arrival of the fuel tanker did, however, bring national attention to one of the issues the ever expanding Arctic region was facing. While other countries were working fast and furiously to beef up their icebreaker capacity. The United States was losing ground. Two of its icebreakers were out of commission, and the Healy was designed for scientific expeditions, not jobs more suited to heavy class icebreakers. Sen. Lisa Murkowski noted that the Healy's role in the fuel delivery brought this issue to the attention of many who previously were unaware of the nation's need.
"We are an Arctic nation — we might need some ice-breaking capacity," she said at a press conference shortly after the Renda arrived in Nome.
3. Wild weather
Unprecedented weather events, like the "Blizzicane" that blasted the coast in November of 2011, continued into 2012, with Arctic sea ice retreating to its lowest level ever recorded. That might seem somewhat ironic to many in the Arctic, who witnessed ice staying in many parts of the region far later than in recent years, while crabbers farther south were shut out of their fishing grounds by ice that lingered until June.
Still, scientists say the general melting trend has the capacity to bring about more extreme weather. Flooding and extended rainfall this fall in the Northwest Arctic Borough, as well as sightings of whales and fish rare to the region, appear to substantiate the claims of those predicting significant change.
In August, Kivalina's water system was wiped out by flooding, pushing back the opening date for the community's school several weeks. As winter approached, the water system was still not fixed, causing the community to scramble for means to make it through the winter without a reserve of water.
In December, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved forward on an endangered listing for ringed and bearded seals in the Arctic, due in part to diminished sea ice.
4. Point Hope leader awarded prestigious prize
While many Arctic communities are divided on the issue of development, and the jobs it brings, versus protection of the environment, some residents were less conflicted. In April, Caroline Cannon of Point Hope was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to fight oil development in the Arctic. The award, one of six given worldwide each year, comes with a $150,000 individual cash award. Cannon said she believes she was chosen by her elders to be a voice for her community on behalf of generations to come.
"I'm worried about my great-great grandkids," she said. "This is who we are. For two years we did not land a whale and that identity is broken. I am blessed and fortunate to go back and forth to Barrow, so I would get muktuk. Some people I would give it to would literally have tears in their eyes."
The crushing details of a disaster that left one child injured and another dead in Barrow in early February came out slowly, but when they did, they shocked residents. Both the children's mother and her boyfriend were initially charged with second degree assault. The children, court records allege, were left in their bedroom with the window open while temperatures in Barrow dipped to minus 30. The mother's boyfriend, who was allegedly under the influence of alcohol at the time, called 911 when he found the children. One child, a 3-year-old girl, was not breathing when police arrived. Heroic attempts to resuscitate the girl eventually failed. Another child, 1, survived but also needed critical medical attention. Esther Edwards-Gust, 28, the mother of the children, and her boyfriend, 28-year-old Richard Tilden Jr, were charged in the case, which was misreported by some initially as a beating. The case prompted a purple ribbon campaign in Barrow, in hopes of bringing awareness to domestic violence, as well as cultivating hope in the community.
6. Gun crime
Police and Alaska State Troopers were kept on their toes in 2012 with a series of gun-related incidents that ranged from cautionary to extreme. The year started off with a search for an armed fugitive near Kotzebue. James Darin Monroe was captured Jan. 4 after he ran following charges of sex assault of a 3-year-old. A large search-and-rescue effort for the reportedly armed man was underway as temperatures dipped to 30 below. Troopers found Monroe in a cabin and arrested him without incident.
In late January, a 20-year-old Barrow man was arrested for firing four shots inside a Yugit Street home in the early morning hours, wounding two. The shooting rocked Barrow, where drive-by shootings are virtually unheard of. Barrow's winter of violence continued in April when police shot and wounded an armed man after responding to a domestic violence report.
Charges were pressed against another Barrow man in May after he allegedly discharged his firearm into an occupied vehicle. None of the three people in the truck were hurt, and the man was arrested without incident.
In June, Kotzebue watched as a day-long standoff between a suspect who allegedly shot and injured two troopers before turning the gun on himself. Arvid Nelson Jr., of Kotzebue, was found dead inside his vehicle of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
In the fall, the gun violence picked up again. A scheduled visit by Gov. Sean Parnell was delayed because of reports of gunshots fired near the Ambler airstrip. This came only days after a Noatak man was charged with allegedly opening fire on a boat full of children and adults on the Noatak river.
Finally, in September, a Kiana man who had allegedly shot two hunters after being wanted by authorities for two weeks, was arrested. Teddy Smith, who appeared in the film "On The Ice," was taken into custody, ending the long search that had many in the area concerned. Smith had been wanted regarding an incident at his mother's house on Sept. 7 after Dolly Smith, 74, passed away at her home. Following her passing, Teddy Smith allegedly fired a gun at first responders. He disappeared, and wasn't heard from again until troopers got a report that Charles and Paul Buckel had happened upon Smith in a cabin upriver. Smith allegedly shot Charles Buckel in the chest, and left with the pair's boat and hunting equipment. The injured men were able to radio for help, alerting Kotzebue Police. Smith was apprehended later with the help of locals who knew the river and suggested a good place to wait for him. Smith surrendered without incident.
The spate of violence made safety a top priority of the new Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule as well as the borough assembly.
In 2012, Noorvik took the state title while the Barrow Whalers won the regional title. Basketball again ruled in the Arctic, with Barrow's Whalers running a nine-game winning streak to capture the regional title in early March. The Lady Whalers, as well as Point Hope and Noatak girls teams, also clinched their spots on the statewide competition.
"When it comes to a dynasty, the Noorvik boys basketball team has all the makings," wrote then-sports reporter for the Sounder Van Williams, after reporting the team took another state title in the ASAA Class 2A State Championships. That makes eight titles for the boys team since 1991, and five for the girls.
But it was Point Hope's girls team that took home the 2A state title in 2012, for the first time since 1998. The team won the title the hard way after rallying a comeback over Cook Inlet Academy in the last eight minutes of the game. The team says it plans to go back to state this year.
8. Alternative energy continues to be a focus
Kotzebue added two 250-foot windmills to its wind farm in April, adding to the 17 already standing. The new mills will add 1.8 megawatts of power to the Kotzebue Electric Association's 11 megawatts of wind-generated power. That equates to a 90,000-gallon decrease in diesel use, the association reports.
Issues with crushing energy costs continue to daunt the Arctic, however, with many residents paying exponentially more to heat their homes than Railbelt residents. The issue played a big part in the elections this fall, but solutions are hard to come by and far afield.
9. Former whaling commissioner sentenced
Maggie Ahmaogak, the former Eskimo Whaling Commission head, plead guilty in May to three of four counts against her in an embezzlement case involving nearly a halfmillion dollars. Ahmaogak, wife of 2011 mayoral candidate for the North Slope Borough George Ahmaogak.
In November, Maggie Ahmaogak, was sentenced to more than three years in prison and ordered to pay back more than $393,000.
10. Whale quota holds
Concerns that the whale quota appropriated to the Alaska Arctic might be reduced were put to rest in July when the International Whaling Commission extended the region's whaling limits for another six years.
The quota allows Alaska and Russian whalers to divide up to 336 whales over six years. The limit hasn't changed in the past 15 years, and Alaska is expected to take the vast majority of those whales. Alaska whalers had a good season in 2012, with the fall hunt bringing in 15 whales. Earlier in the year, strong ice allowed some 14 whales to be taken in Barrow, with Point Hope bringing in five whales. Savoonga reportedly landed six whales. Wales, which as not landed a whale in several years, was able to bring in a whale this year, too.
This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.