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The Northwest Passage is in the news again — or it would be if Washington understood what’s at stake in the Arctic these days.

One important indicator that our national leaders are on the ball will be whether the Port of Nome is excavated to a depth sufficient to handle the Navy’s new icebreaker, now under construction.

The ice of the Arctic Ocean is melting, by some accounts far faster than most people understand. Some see that as an ominous indication of global warming, and perhaps we all should be thinking of it that way. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says it is also “a magnificent economic opportunity.”

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Pompeo’s enthusiasm may not be shared by everyone, but the fading Arctic sea ice does at last suggest that the Northwest Passage will become a major international trade corridor.

And if the United States is going to become a key player on that trade route, it will need to get ready. The nation does have a new icebreaker under construction that will open many new trade opportunities.

But there is a real question as to whether we will be in position to take real advantage of what lies ahead. One ominous indicator of the laggardly approach is that the Port of Nome, the most likely northern docking spot for the new icebreaker, may not be deep enough to handle the ship.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been studying the Nome problem for years and will be publishing a feasibility study soon. But Col. Phillip Borders, commander of the Corps of Engineers Alaska District, says the study is only looking into dredging the Nome port deep enough to do a better job of handling the ships that dock there now.

The new icebreaker apparently couldn’t make it into Nome unless the dredging took the bottom down several more feet, from its projected depth of 30 to 40 feet to at least 45 feet.

If the United States doesn’t get its act together and improve its Arctic capabilities more, the slack will be taken up by Russia and China. And those two nations are already becoming major factors in the Arctic.

Seven years ago, when Nome needed an emergency delivery of heating fuel during a winter of minus 55 chill factors, we had to call on a Russian tanker to deliver the fuel. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the nation’s only icebreaking cutter, had the honor of escorting the Russian tanker into the Nome harbor.

The increasingly rapid changes in the Arctic are an ominous development and suggest it’s definitely time to take on the challenges brought by our warming world. But we also need to acknowledge that there are also historic opportunities on the way — and those challenges must be met as well.

Most easterners think of Alaska as a place far away from its immediate concerns. But once the Northwest Passage opens for regular commerce, as it almost certainly will, it is essential that this country accept the challenge and give Russia and China a run for their money. At that time, ships traveling between the East and West coasts via the Arctic Ocean will be making what will effectively be a short trip.

If America misses this opportunity, it could well be forfeiting its place in the commerce of the modern world.

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