2021 Year in Review
Rioters storm U.S. Capitol
On January 6, Congress met in a joint session to tally Electoral College votes, the final step in certifying the 2020 election, but what is typically an uneventful and largely symbolic process turned violent, as thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump converged upon the U.S. Capitol to overturn the outcome of the election. Inspired by a speech by Trump in which he told supporters to “fight like hell,” amid baseless claims of a stolen election, the crowd attacked Capitol Police and brutalized the Capitol building. Five people died. Subsequently, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives. On Saturday, February 13, the U.S. Senate voted mostly along party lines to acquit Trump.The Senate voted 57 to 43, with seven Republicans—including Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski—joining all 50 Democrats finding Trump guilty of inciting the insurrection. A Select Committee is investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Russian tanker passes through Bering Strait
In a first recorded winter transit, a 908-foot Russian tanker carrying liquified natural gas passed south through the Russian side of the Bering Strait, with two more on track that followed suit. The ships were traversing the northern coast of Siberia, called the North Sea Route, in the middle of January with no icebreaker escort, an unprecedented event that may hint at the future of the region as climate change alters global commerce.
BSSD resumes in-person school
After the Christmas break, most schools in the Bering Strait School District returned to in-person classes for the spring semester. With the exception of Brevig Mission and Shishmaref, all village schools were in the “green” status, meaning school can operate mostly as normal, with some COVID prevention measures like mask wearing and regular testing in place. Schools in Nome operated in the green zone.
City of Nome ends 2020 in good financial position
The City of Nome passed the annual audit at the end of January with a budget surplus of $463,701 despite a tumultuous year of COVID-19 spending. That surplus, along with some remaining unspent CARES funding, puts the City in a good financial position going into 2021.
Region reaches 40 percent COVID vaccination
Close to two months since the region’s first COVID-19 vaccination shot was administered to an Elder in Nome, Norton Sound Health Corporation was about halfway to its goal of 80 percent vaccination in the region, the ballpark figure that scientists estimate is needed to achieve herd immunity to the coronavirus.
Nome Police Department audit released
After a long delay, the management audit of the Nome Police Department, which has been more than a year in the making, was released. The audit offers recommendations on where NPD should focus its improvement efforts to better serve the community. Some of the audit’s highest priority recommendations have to do with organization and procedure. Disorganization of evidence storage, along with the lack of digital evidence capabilities and a trained evidence custodian, presented a “high liability” issue that should be addressed immediately, the report said.
No new COVID cases
For the first time since June 2020, an entire week passed in the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region without any new cases of COVID-19 being identified. There were still two active cases in the region, one in Nome and one in Koyuk.
Iron Dog arrives in Nome
The Iron Dog snowmachine race’s Pro Class riders arrived in Nome on Feb. 15, a Monday afternoon under ideal weather conditions. Within three hours the first ten teams rolled into town, remarkable considering they’d traveled over one thousand miles through the Alaska wilderness Team 6 Brad George and Robby Schachle took the victory. Team 10, Mike Morgan and Chris Olds finished third with a trail time of 51 hours, 59 minutes and 5 seconds.
No Iditarod coming to Nome
For the first time since its inception in 1973, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race did not end in Nome. Due to COVID concerns organizers opted to avoid the traditional trail route and instead, the race followed an out and back route from Deshka Landing to Iditarod and return. This change allowed mushers and trail support to avoid most villages. For the same reason, the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage was cancelled. Eventually, Dallas Seavey won the race, notching his fifth Iditarod victory. With the absence of Iditarod, the range of arts events that usually accompany the sled dog race have been scaled back, both because of the lack of visitors and the ongoing threat of COVID-19. The pandemic has toned down the Nome arts community in general, but it’s also created some new opportunities. The Iditarod Art Show happened entirely online,
No new COVID cases
For two weeks, there were no new cases of COVID-19 detected in the Nome, Bering Strait and Norton Sound region. In mid-March, there were three active cases in the region, one in Unalakleet and two in Nome.
Also, Governor Mike Dunleavand Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink announced that anyone age 16 or older in Alaska would be able to get a COVID vaccine, effective Wednesday, March 10. Alaska was the first state to open vaccinations up to everyone regardless of age or occupation.
Morgan wins Nome-Golovin race
On Saturday, March 20, weather finally allowed the Nome-Golovin snowmachine race to be held. The race was scheduled for the previous weekend but had to be postponed twice because of very bad weather conditions. On race day, it was clear, not too cold, and with a trail that was pretty good. In 2020 the race did not run because of problems with the weather.
Nome’s Mike Morgan won the 2021 Nome-Golovin race.
Nome and the surrounding area, including St. Lawrence Island, saw a outbreak in rabies. The dramatic increase in positive rabies cases in foxes and dogs has brought attention from Alaska rabies control specialists who have come to Nome to help lower the rate of infection. “The state recognizes that this is an unusual and serious issue in Nome and Savoonga right now,” said Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Health Veterinarian.
March and April hammered by back-to-back blizzards
For four years in row, March has failed to deliver glorious weather for spring outings, safe travels and happy hunting. Instead, March has come to be synonymous with dangerous weather conditions that throw a wrench in springtime outdoor activities.
For four years, the month of March has received above normal snowfall. The back-to-back blizzards that halted business as usual in Nome caused school to be canceled, businesses closing early or not opening at all and organizations sending their employees home.
Starting on March 3-4 a snowstorm dumped four inches on Nome, with a peak wind recorded at 53 mph. In the middle of the snow storm the National Weather Service’s Automated Observation System at the Nome office failed. Just as Nomeites were digging out, the next storm arrived on March 13-14 with 3-4 inches of snow and peak winds at 47 mph. On March 23-24, three to four inches fell, causing briefly blizzard conditions with peak winds at 39 mph. On March 27-28, a bona fide blizzard raged for more than a day, bringing approximately 8 inches of snow in strong winds that peaked at 47 mph on March 28. Going into April, the streak of blizzards was not over. The traditional Easter egg hunt was moved inside the ANB as April 2-3 brought five inches of snow, followed by a day of blue skies but strong winds causing ground blizzard conditions. The winds blew at 40 mph in town, in Dexter gust reached up to 54 mph.
Longtime Bering Air pilot retires
After 38 years of flying for Bering Air and serving the region, pilot Larry Eggart made his last trip to St. Lawrence Island before officially retiring.
IPOP proposes case study
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a public comment period on yet another proposal by IPOP LLC to mine for gold at Bonanza Channel. This time, IPOP proposes to conduct a ‘case study’ while mining at Bonanza Channel, near mile 28 of the Nome-Council Highway. “The proposed case study involves mining and is proposed for this summer, which would then be followed by the five-year mining proposal (for five summer/fall ‘mining seasons’),” explained Project Manager Tiffany Kwakwa with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The purpose of the case study has been stated by the applicant as to collect scientific information in order to support the five-year mining operation.”
No permits have been issued.
Red King Crab survey finds few adult male crabs
Much scientific research in the Bering Sea region has been on hold because of the COVID pandemic. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was able to complete an annual bottom trawl survey of the waters of Norton Sound and found the number of legal males is by far the lowest they’ve seen in the history of the trawl survey. On the upside, the large number of pre-recruit males looks good for the future.
Lt. Governor visits Nome, gauging economic loss due to COVID
Lt. Governor Kevin Meyer and Bill Thomas, the Governor’s special assistant for Southeast Alaska, traveled to Nome to hear firsthand from Nome businesses and how the loss of cruise ship visits last year —and possibly this coming season —will impact the economy. They met with City representatives and Nome Chamber of Commerce members. Their mission was strictly limited to find out how the cruise ship related tourism industry fared during the pandemic. In 2020, all cruises not only bound for Nome but all Alaskan were canceled.
NSHC’s Liitfik Wellness Center opened its doors
The Liitfik Wellness and Training Center officially opened its doors to the public on Monday, May 17. The center, an outpatient clinic supporting individuals with behavioral health, substance disorders and mental health crises, has been in the works for a decade. The facility will serve individuals across the entire Bering Strait region experiencing substance disorders, suicidal behaviors and behavioral issues. It will also give NSHC an opportunity to address some of the bigger issues facing the community, including removing barriers to mental health support.
Gambell fights distemper outbreak
The community of Gambell fought a distemper outbreak among its dog population this spring and managed to squash the epidemic in its early onset. Distemper is a deadly disease that can afflict dogs and wildlife alike. Gambell Mayor Joel James said that dogs started to get sick and by lucky coincidence the Alaska Native Rural Veterinarian group was in town for a regular spay and neuter clinic. They ended up helping to find out what caused the sickness and then rendered assistance to get the outbreak under control by starting a massive vaccination effort. Two volunteers in Gambell and the VPSO were trained to administer the vaccines.
Forty students graduate NBHS
The Class of 2021 saw beautiful weather blessing their Graduation Day, as the forty students paraded in trucks through town and then headed to their outdoor graduation ceremony at Nome-Beltz. The parade started at the Rec Center and a caravan of trucks decorated with balloons and congratulatory writings snaked through town and Icy View. Nomeites waved at the graduates and collective pride of a class that endured uncertainty in this past year, complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, was palpable.
Musk ox injures two sled dogs
A musk ox entered Kirsten Bey’s dog yard on Nome-Beltz highway and injured two sled dogs. Bey managed to get the injured animals and the rest of dogs out of harms way. After the authorities responded and arrived, the musk ox left the yard.
Bourdon receives commendation
Josie Bourdon received a commendation from the Alaska State Legislature for a lifetime of dedication teaching the Inupiaq language. She was honored at a Nome Common Council meeting with Mayor John Handeland reading the Legislature’s citation into the record and presenting the framed document to Ms. Bourdon.
Trust to spend $20 million on regional water and sewer systems
The Helmsley Charitable Trust of Colorado announced a $20 million grant to improve water, sanitation and hygiene in rural Alaska, mostly in communities of the Norton Sound/Bering Strait region. The grant aims to improve operation and maintenance of existing water and sewer utilities, to establish a Regional Utility Assistance program with Norton Sound Health Corporation to benefit the 15 communities in the Bering Strait region and to construct community and household water and sewer projects here. It also seeks to develop a pathway to water and sewer service to unserved communities and homes.
Despite the rainy weather and chilly temperatures, Nomeites came in droves to celebrate the Fourth of July. The Rotary Club presented the Citizen of the Year award to Caroline “Cussy” Kauer.
Republican legislators hold PCE hostage
Rural Alaskan energy consumers paid the price for a power struggle in Juneau that resulted in the Power Cost Equalization endowment fund not being “reverse swept” and thus leaving the account empty for weeks before it was replenished.
Power Cost Equalization, PCE for short, is a state program that aims to level the playing field in energy costs as urban and road system energy consumers pay less money per kilowatt hour than those living in rural Alaska off the road system. A distinct fund was created to offset high energy costs in rural Alaska and this PCE endowment is worth more than $1 billion. Several Republican House and Senate legislators voted ‘no’ on the Constitutional Budget Reserve provisions of the budget. With that the legislature failed to create a three-quarter supermajority required for a so-called reverse sweep that deposits funds into subfunds, including the PCE account, in which the resided prior to June 30 when the sweep takes place.
Rain, rain, rain
The last week of July brought nearly record-breaking rain fall to Nome and the region, making it feel more like a bona fide September fall storm than a mid-summer week. Picking berries on the tundra required the wearing of waders and full-on raingear as low-hanging clouds saturated the air and tundra at times. At other times, torrential rains hit roof tops with a steady beat, creating instant puddles and little creeks running downhill on gravel roads.
The last week of July brought a deluge from July 24 through August 1 that earned the distinction of being the second highest 7-day rainfall on record, says Climate Specialist Rick Thoman with UAF’s Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.
COVID cases skyrocket
Amidst the surge of COVID-19 cases in Stebbins, Norton Sound Health Corporation identified a second outbreak in the village of St. Michael.
Across the region, COVID-19 cases were surging to record numbers, and NSHC has identified hundreds of new cases in August.
NSEDC ousts Adem Boeckman
The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation’s board voted to oust the Nome representative from its board of directors, triggering a special election to fill the seat in October.
Representative Adem Boeckmann, elected to the board in late 2018, was supposed to hold the Nome seat until 2022.
“Following confidential discussions, the NSEDC Board of Directors removed Mr. Boeckmann as the Nome representative,” NSEDC President and CEO Janis Ivanoff wrote in an email to the Nugget on Monday. “Per the NSEDC bylaws, a member of the Board may be removed by a two-thirds majority vote of the directors whenever it is determined to be in the best interest of the Corporation.”
Icicle Seafoods, a Seattle-based seafood company, brought a processor to the region with plans to purchase Norton Sound’s pink salmon. Icicle hoped to partner with NSEDC and NSSP during the 2021 pink season, but NSEDC declined, citing concerns with Icicle’s experimental purse-seining fishing proposal, which was approved by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.
Boeckmann, while sitting on the NSEDC board of directors, was the only local fisherman to apply for the experimental purse-seine permit and sell to Icicle.
Scientist warn of irreversible climate crisis
The August arctic sea ice cover was at its lowest levels since before 1850 and is likely to reach practically ice-free conditions at its summer minimum at least once before 2050, according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC for short.
The report, released earlier this month, is almost 4,000 pages in length, and paints a grim future for a world where climate change is “widespread, rapid and intensifying,” and in some cases, irreversible. Scientists who compiled the report explored different scenarios over the next several decades, including how sea ice cover might change if the United States significantly changes its practices regarding carbon emissions, or if it stays the course.
Arctic climate expert John Walsh, chief scientist and professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks said, “If we don’t get our act together, we will lose the sea ice, even in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, for most of the year.”
According to the IPCC report, the Arctic region has warmed at more than twice the global rate over the last 50 years and will continue to do so at a higher rate than the global average. The rapidly-heating waters will impact more than just sea ice cover.
“The water will warm up because it has lost the reflective ice cover, which will enhance the warming, making it even stronger, and that will impact the marine ecosystem,” Walsh said. “There’s going to be marine mammal impacts. Any marine mammal that depends on sea ice will essentially be out of luck.”
Dunleavy visits Port of Nome
Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy visited Nome on August 30 for a day to discuss the potential Port of Nome expansion project. “We came up to have a discussion with the City Council and the Army Corps of Engineers on the potential port expansion here in Nome, and it was pretty valuable,” Dunleavy told the Nugget. “We went over some numbers, timelines, where the folks here in Nome think things are at, potential models to look at for the port, and it was a pretty good conversation.”
The project, turning the Nome Port into a deep-water port able to support significantly larger vessels, has been in the works for years, and is currently in the design phase.
Research has no explanation for seabird die-offs
St. Lawrence Island, home to two native villages in the region, is also the summer home of several migratory seabird species, including kittiwakes, auklets, murres, and shearwaters.
Over the last several years, though, the bird colonies on the island have been shrinking, and no one has been able to determine why.
“They are literally seeing fewer birds on the cliffs, and they’re watching the birds fade away every year,” explained Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program Agent Gay Sheffield, based at UAF’s Northwest Campus in Nome. “These birds are a signal of the health of our ecosystem, and they’re also a food security item, so people have great interest. Why are birds here not in the best of health, and why are they dying?”
Across the region, dead seabirds have been washing up on shores in large numbers for several years now, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
“Multi-species adults have been washing in dead, and that includes a variety of different types of birds. Typically, it has been shearwaters, murres, puffins, gulls, kittiwakes, and this year we had cormorants and loons wash up dead. It’s not normal,” said Sheffield.
Researchers and scientists, including Sheffield, have posited theories about the seabird die-offs, known as wrecks in the scientific community, speculating disease, toxic algal blooms and food source scarcity, though scientists will have to do a lot more on-the-ground research before they can determine an official cause.
Council extends COVID emergency ordinance
The Nome Common Council unanimously voted to extend an emergency ordinance until January 2022. In past extensions of the emergency measure, some public members commented either for or against the measure which vests the City Manager with considerable power to quickly respond to a public health emergency caused by the novel coronavirus, but no public comment was given. Mayor John Handeland argued for the ordinance which gives city leadership the tool to swiftly respond to a COVID emergency. On March 17, 2020 the ordinance was adopted and since then extended five times. The ordinance gives the city manager power to control emergency measures for city staff and buildings as well as controlling “ingress and egress into Nome, the movement of persons within the area and the occupancy of premises.” The ordinance also stipulates that the city manager must report to the City Council in their next meeting on his actions taken. The Council then has the option to ratify the actions taken, vacate them or amend them. The ordinance also provides for a mechanism of enforcement. Violations of orders made in the scope of the emergency declaration are punishable with a penalty of $500 per offense plus a state surcharge.
The ordinance expires midnight January 31, 2022.
COVID cases spike
Hospitals across the state began to ration care and turned away patients. COVID-19 cases were also on the rise in Nome, Norton Sound and the Bering Strait region. State of Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services announced the activation of crisis standards of care for 20 Alaska healthcare facilities including NSHC, though the situation varies widely between each facility and doesn’t always mean rationing care.
Following the rise of COVID-19 cases in Nome, the city implemented a face mask mandate for indoor public places beginning October 2.
In the October municipal elections, John Handeland was reelected Mayor, Scot Henderson won Seat C on the Nome Common Council and school board member Nancy Mendenhall was reelected. Initially the election for NSEDC Nome representative was too close to call and a special election between JT Sherman and Adelaine Ahmasuk was held. Sherman won the NSEDC Nome seat.
Adventurer stops in Nome
Nineteen-year-old Zara Rutherford landed her two-seat plane at Nome’s City Field on Friday afternoon as part of her attempt to break a Guinness World Record.
Her goal: to be the youngest woman in the world to fly solo around the world.
COVID cases rise
The region has seen its second COVID-19 related death. The individual, a regional resident in his 60s, passed away on Wednesday, October 27, following complications related to the virus, according to the Norton Sound Health Corporation. On Oct. 29, the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services in their press release listed the death as a male Nome Census area resident in his 60s.
COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the region following Halloween weekend.
Researchers report decline in fish numbers
Key marine species in the Northern Bering Sea, including several types of crab and fish, have seen significant population declines over the last several years, according to a new bottom trawl survey organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The survey, conducted throughout the summer months in both the Northern and Eastern Bering Sea, explored the current state of the sea floor.
Back-to-back winter storms hit Nome and the region with very strong, screaming winds out of the south and accompanying blowing snow and rain. Winds knocked out power in Wales, ripped buildings apart in Golovin and brought water levels up 6.73 feet over normal. Strong south winds hit 71 miles per hour in St. Michael, Shishmaref had its sea ice blown away and the Nome Airport saw 0.64 inches of precipitation – mostly in the form of rain. Saturday, Dec. 18 and continued all day Sunday brought the total precipitation for December thus far to 2.04 inches, putting Nome on the trajectory to experience the wettest December since 1931. More storms followed after Christmas and Dec. 28, causing widespread power outages and travel made difficult due to glare ice.