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Safest route to Nome? Alaska fuel convoy waits for word

U.S. Coast Guard via AP

The Coast Guard icebreaker Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda Tuesday evening. Shifting ice has slowed the progress of the paired vessels. The ice tends to close in, cutting off the path between the two ships. When that happens, the icebreaker doubles back and makes a relief cut to take pressure off the tanker and open a pathway.

The fuel tanker and U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker trying to make it to Nome, Alaska, are staying put in compact ice while aerial teams look for the safest route, offiicals told msnbc.com on Wednesday.

"We knew they were going to go through this and it was going to be tough," said Kathleen Cole, a National Weather Service ice forecaster in Anchorage. "They're trying to keep things safe out there."

"They will be able to move forward," Cole said, noting that once a route is found the ice will get thicker but not as dense, which is what has threatened the safety of the Russian-flagged tanker Renda. "This is about the most compact that they're going to reach. There is some thicker ice, but not as compact."

The convoy made progress on Monday. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

The convoy is still 97 miles south of Nome, after making no progress on Tuesday due to ice, currents and "significant winds that shifted the ice," Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow told msnbc.com.

STORY: Alaska convoy moves just 50 feet forward

Overnight, the ships' crews did not try to venture foward but instead used the time to rest and do maintenance, he added.

The Coast Guard cutter Healy and its crew were supposed to have been back at their homeport of Seattle before Christmas, but were instead redirected to help the Renda reach Nome, which could face heating and gasoline shortages by spring because its regular winter shipment was blocked by a November storm. Ships and planes are the only way in or out of the town of 3,500. Flying fuel in is doable but very expensive.

If the ships make it to Nome, it will be the first time a fuel tanker reaches a western Alaska town blocked off by winter sea ice. The Renda is carrying 1.3 million gallons of fuel.

"This is a great learning experience for the Coast Guard," Wadlow said.

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