Updated Arctic chart mitigates risk for commercial transportation on the Kuskokwim

By Andrew Kampia, chief of Products Branch A, Marine Chart Division, Office of Coast Survey

When we say that many Arctic charts are lacking information critical to navigation, we’re not overstating the issue. A case in point was the 2005 edition of Chart 16304, depicting the mouth of Kuskokwim River to the City of Bethel, in Alaska. This was a preliminary chart with no hydrography, no depth measurements whatsoever.

Chart 16304 - 2005
Preliminary Chart 16304, issued in 2005

Coast Survey just released updated NOAA Chart 16304, which now includes contemporary shoreline and hydrography. (The NOAA ENC® equivalent — US4AK85M — will be available in a month or two.)

Chart 16304
New edition of Chart 16304 has depth measurements and other charted features.

Bethel is the supply hub for this region of Alaska and the river is essential for transporting petroleum products, commercial salmon, supplies, and other cargo during limited ice season (generally June through September). However, navigating the Kuskokwim River is a unique and risky experience. As you can see from the nautical chart, the 40-mile approach to Bethel is a maze of shifting sandbars, both visible and covered, and blind channels. The channels in the river undergo constant change from year to year, because of the action of the sea, currents, and ice. A small pilot boat often precedes the vessel through these waters, constantly feeling out the channels and monitoring soundings.

Vitus Marine serves Western Alaska Coast villages and interior river ports with bulk fuel and freight transport. Mark Smith, their chief executive officer, applauded Coast Survey for mapping the Lower Kuskokwim and releasing Chart 16304, noting that “mapping greatly reduces the risk of grounding and facilitates safe and efficient marine traffic.”

“All petroleum and other critical bulk cargoes are transported via watercraft to Western Alaska ports through similar river entrances,” observed CEO Mark Smith. “Along with all navigators, Vitus encourages NOAA to aggressively address the many other, yet uncharted river entrances, where commerce regularly transits dynamic areas to reach each community.”

The Kuskokwim River forms a portion of the “Arctic” border, as provided in the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984.

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