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Western Alaska: diverse weather, wildlife and culture.


Western Alaska is an immense area that extends from Bristol Bay to the Seward Peninsula. The region's climate is largely determined by the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, which makes for a diverse landscape and climate.

The region features a subarctic oceanic climate in the southwest and a continental subarctic climate farther north. Temperatures are relatively moderate, with considerable variance in precipitation. The northern side of the Seward Peninsula is like a desert, receiving fewer than 10 inches of precipitation annually. Some locations between Dillingham and Bethel average around 100 inches of precipitation. Farther north, in Nome, the climate is drier and colder.

With its relatively temperate climate, Western Alaska is home to a wide variety of vegetation, including spruce, cedar, Salmonberry, Douglas aster and broadleaf fireweed. It also supports a large population of birds, mammals and larger game animals, such as bear, moose, musk ox and reindeer.


Various economic drivers support Western Alaska. From the northern to the southern parts of the region, major sectors are fishing, government, education, health care, retail and tourism. Subsistence is also a critical component for many Western Alaska residents.

The relative remoteness of Western Alaska's communities has a significant impact on the cost of living. Higher-cost communities like Nome, Dillingham and Bethel rely on air transportation for food, fuel and other essentials for much of the year. In Nome--located on the southern Seward Peninsula coast of Norton Sound--the cost of living is 39 percent more than in Anchorage, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. That doesn't take into account the impact of subsistence. "People in Nome may not buy as much food in grocery stores as people in Anchorage," said Alaska Department of Labor Economist Alyssa Shanks.

Transportation, as a broader category, is also much more costly in Nome than in Anchorage. Transportation fuel in Nome is 49 percent more expensive than in Anchorage. Utilities are 161 percent higher in Nome than in Anchorage, mainly due to the high price of heating fuel. Higher fuel costs, poor commercial fishing and other factors have been particularly devastating to some communities in Western Alaska. Harsh economic conditions at Emmonak and several other villages-located in the Wade Hampton Census Area--prompted requests for financial assistance from the federal government.



The Wade Hampton Census Area, with about 7,000 residents, depends on other places for many of its services. With retail, trade and public education being the biggest sectors, the area's unemployment rate is typically higher than elsewhere in the state. The unemployment rate for November, for example, was 20.4 percent. "Wade Hampton regularly gets the designation of the place with the highest unemployment rate for Alaska," Shanks said.

Nome is a critical hub for Wade Hampton and other communities in the surrounding area. As a result, the city's employment industry is dominated by service and retail jobs. Health care, government, public education and mining jobs also play an important role in supporting the area's economy. Unemployment in Nome has traditionally been higher than in other parts of the state. In November, for instance, the unemployment rate was 11.5 percent for the Nome Census Area. "They're running about 2 percent higher than they have in the past couple of years," Shanks said. "However, I don't find that surprising, given the current state of the economy in Alaska and the nation."


Nome is the supply, service and transportation center of the Bering Straits region, which is about the size of West Virginia. Consequently, the city has a diverse economy marked by steady progression, according to Mayor Denise Michels. "Nome was incorporated in 1901 and has survived through many economic booms and busts," Michels said. "The community is business-savvy, and we continue to adjust with these times. At this time, Nome's economy is stable."

Last year, Nome's tourism sector was negatively impacted by the global economy, but the construction industry had a positive impact on the city. One important undertaking is the construction of a new Public Safety Building scheduled to be completed the summer of 2010. The $8.1 million project will house municipal police, volunteer fire and ambulance departments, as well as an emergency operations center and a training center.

Another important construction project under way is the new Norton Sound Health Corp. hospital, which received full funding of $152 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package through the Indian Health Service. The project will create 70 new jobs initially and more than 200 jobs during construction. In addition, the Nome Joint Utility System is scheduled to begin a utilidor replacement project this summer to enhance water and sewer service.

The Port of Nome also has experienced a huge increase in activity. Since 1990, the port's vessel traffic resulted in 34 dockings; in 2009 there were 234, according to Michels. This includes fuel, bulk cargo, gravel and equipment barges, cruise ships, government ships, and research and exploration vessels. Nome is also a destination for miscellaneous pleasure craft, including foreign registered vessels. In 2008, three vessels completed the Northwest Passage; in 2009, four completed the trip, Michels said. Last year, Nome also served as a port of call for The World, a luxury cruise ship boasting five-star accommodations.

The boost in Nome's port activity is due, in part, to a number of improvements. The Nome Navigation Improvement Project solved significant navigation problems through wave protection by constructing a breakwater, sediment management, improving harbor access by commercial fishing boats, and improving cargo handling, thereby decreasing transportation costs and expanding services. "The city invested its own funds along with partnerships with Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., which improved the inner harbor for our commercial fishing fleet by adding an additional floating dock," Michels said.

In addition, Nome also saw an increase in small offshore gold-dredging operations. "Several small gold mines continue to provide some employment," she said.

Michels said Nome is working to create strong partnerships to diversify and strengthen the economy, including collaborating with the private sector. "We understand we must be healthy so that economic, community and work force development and education opportunities occur," she said.


There's no place like Nome. While these words reflect the city's tagline, they represent more than a marketing slogan. Nome is a unique place with rivers, abundant wildlife, beautiful wilderness and hundreds of miles of roads. The city's strategic positioning offers plenty of opportunities for summer and winter recreation.

"We are located on the Norton Sound with access to miles and miles of beaches, so you can enjoy a picnic, boating, swimming and fishing," Michels said. "In the winter, you can hop on your snow machine and ride for miles, ski along our winter trails or go crabbing on the ice."

Nome is the oldest continuous incorporated city in Alaska. It's also the gateway to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Nome has one of the richest and oldest Eskimo cultures documented in Alaska. The area is culturally diverse, featuring three main Eskimo cultural/linguistic groups Inupiaq, Yupik and St. Lawrence Island Yupik.

Because of its rich culture, Nome is known for having world-class Alaska Native arts and crafts. The city is also famous for its rich history as a gold rush town. The discovery of gold at Anvil Creek in 1898 drew thousands of fortune seekers to the area, including the notorious gunslinger Wyatt Earp. Today, prospectors still engage in gold panning and dredging along its beaches.

Nome is also renowned for its role in the world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It is the final destination of the annual race, which takes place in March. During that month, a number of activities are staged around the event, including a snowmachine race, basketball tournament and dart tournament. "We see anywhere from 800 to 2,000 visitors, depending on the year," Michels said. "This is a huge boost for our economy during the winter season."

Each year, more than 5,000 people are estimated to visit Nome. Since 2002, annual walk-in traffic for the local visitors center has averaged 5,204, said Mike Cavin, tourism director of the Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau. Last year, about 2,000 fewer people stopped by the visitor's center than in 2008. Many of the people visiting Nome tend to be higher-income earners, Cavin said. Also, more of the city's visitors are arriving in small yachts and sailing vessels after navigating the Northwest Passage.

The Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum is another popular stop for visitors wanting to experience the history of Nome. The museum features exhibits, artifacts and photographs depicting the gold rush era, Wyatt Earp, Eskimos and dog sled racing.

Nature-oriented travelers often flock to Nome to see its abundance of birds and other wildlife. Visitors can indulge in world-class bird watching May through August, with an opportunity to see rare species. They can follow any of three roads out of town to spot enormous musk ox, herds of reindeer and brown bear.

But Nome is more than just a place for wildlife viewing, sightseeing and gold panning; it's also an ideal site for conventions, according to Cavin. "Though we're a small town, we still have hotels, B&Bs and meeting spots," he said. "We have a lot of rooms throughout the year."

When visiting Nome, Cavin advises people to dress for winter in the summer. "We're on the Bering Sea; remember the weather can vary," he said.

"Dress comfortably. That way, you can get out and enjoy a lot of what Nome has to offer."

Nome at a Glance

Population: Approximately 3,500

Location: About 540 air miles northwest of Anchorage

Main Industries: Government, tourism, fishing and mining Government Structure: Council-manager form of government

Tax Base: 6 percent hotel/motel tax, 5 percent sales tax, and a property tax

Hospital: Norton Sound Health Corp.

Schools: Nome's school district has about 700 students in pre-K through grade 12. In addition, University of Alaska Fairbanks has a campus in Nome

Airport: Nome Airport

Port: Port of Nome
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Title Annotation:REGIONAL REVIEW
Comment:Western Alaska: diverse weather, wildlife and culture.(REGIONAL REVIEW)
Author:Barbour, Tracy
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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