Living in Alaska's outer reaches is challenging enough, given the isolation and weather extremes, but at least three remote communities also have experienced weather-related late deliveries of fuel so crucial to their survival during an especially bitter winter.
The iced-in town of Nome and the northwest Inupiat Eskimo villages of Noatak and Kobuk faced fuel shortages that illustrate the vulnerability of relying solely on deliveries by sea or air, potentially subjecting communities to the mercy of the elements. The villages, which just received their fuel, are especially vulnerable, unable to afford more additional storage tanks for gasoline and heating oil, which can run as high as $10 a gallon.
Compounding a problem with no easy answers, temperatures dipping as low as minus 60 over the past few weeks means air deliveries are delayed at the same time people are consuming more fuel more quickly. Some people in both villages also use wood-burning stoves for supplemental heat, but diesel is the critical commodity.
"It's been pretty tough," Noatak resident Robbie Kirk said of life in the community of 500, which finally received a fuel delivery on Tuesday, three days after the village store ran out of heating oil. "We usually have a nice reserve of fuel. Now we're just playing catch-up."
Nome missed its pre-winter delivery of fuel by barge when a huge storm swept western Alaska. In a high-profile journey, a Coast Guard icebreaker has cut a path in thick sea ice for a Russian tanker delivering 1.3 million gallons of fuel to the community of 3,500.
Without a fuel delivery, Nome would likely run out of certain petroleum products before the end of winter and a barge delivery becomes possible in late spring.
Until recently, the situation was much more dire for the smaller communities of Noatak and Kobuk, located farther north above the Arctic Circle, where relentless extreme cold prevented fuel deliveries by plane until this week, residents say.
Before the new supply of fuel arrived in Noatak, the village store borrowed some heating oil from the village water and sewer plant, said store manager Connie Walton. But filling the store's two 23,000-gallon tanks has diverted any potential crisis.
"We're good for another month and a half," Walton said.
Residents in Kobuk also were highly relieved by an air shipment of heating oil that arrived Wednesday in the village of 150 people about 175 miles to the east. It's been too cold for people to use their snowmobiles much, so gasoline isn't as much of a concern, said City Clerk Sophia Ward. Running low on the diesel used to warm homes was another matter.
"I'm glad that it came in today," Ward said Wednesday. "It'll keep our elders warm."
In Noatak, residents once had fuel shipped by barge on the Noatak River, but that has long been impossible since the river shifted and became shallow there.
Two years ago, residents began tapping into another source of fuel, thanks to the Red Dog zinc mine 40 miles to the northeast. The mine in 2009 began a program to sell gasoline and diesel to Noatak and another close neighbor, the village of Kivalina. The fuel is sold at cost, said mine spokesman Wayne Hall.
"This is strictly for what we can do to help out our closest community members," he said. "Energy and heating costs are one of the biggest costs to families in this region."
The program lets individuals buy fuel on Saturdays every three weeks at a staging area about 23 miles from the village. This winter, they can buy gas in 55-gallon drums calculated at $4.89 a gallon. Villagers also bring their own drums to fill with diesel fuel at $4.35 a gallon.
The latest Red Dog fuel day for Noatak took place on the day the village store ran out of diesel. So villagers formed a convoy of about 30 snowmobiles and freight sleds, and headed out in weather marked by temperatures of 47 below and, for the first 10 miles, dense fog, said Kirk, who regularly takes advantage of the sales.
"It basically cuts my heating fuel in half," he said. "It's pretty critical for me."
The state also helps lower the soaring cost of electricity in Alaska's rural areas, spending almost $32 million in fiscal year 2011 through its Power Cost Equalization program, which subsidizes residential electric rates and the power bills of community buildings. Power in most villages is diesel-generated.
Running low on fuel is an occasional challenge faced by rural communities in Alaska, and sometimes the weather plays a significant role in air deliveries, said Rob Everts, owner of Everts Air Cargo, whose planes deliver fuel to both Noatak and Kobuk. But there can be other factors as well, such as waiting until the last minute to place orders, he said, stressing that he was speaking generally and not pointing fingers at any particular community.
"Weather is not always bad," he said. "It's about planning in some cases, anticipating what's coming in the dead of winter."