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25-foot sea ice ridge confronts Alaska fuel convoy

Andy Mahoney / University of Alaska, Fairbanks

An ice ridge blocking the harbor of Nome, Alaska, juts out above the rest of the sea ice on Jan. 3.

What most people take for granted -- how fuel gets to our homes and cars -- is an epic story for Nome, Alaska, where the latest obstacle facing a fuel convoy trying to resupply the town is a 25-foot ice ridge blocking the harbor entrance.

Created by offshore ice pushing against the shore ice, the ridge rings the mouth of the frozen harbor at Nome, and its tip sticks about five feet above the rest of the surface, University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher Andy Mahoney, who discovered the ridge, told msnbc.com Thursday.

The fuel tanker won't be able to get past the ridge, but it should be able to offload its 1.3 million gallons of fuel through its mile long hose to Nome, which could run out of heating oil and gasoline by March. Flying supplies in is an option but would add $3-4 a gallon to the cost of fuel that already runs $6 a gallon in Nome, population 3,500.

Charly Hengen / U.S. Coast Guard via AP

Greg Walker, with the University of Alaska- Fairbanks, prepares a drone for a mission to check the ice in the harbor of Nome, Alaska, on Tuesday.

While the fuel tanker and U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker struggle through ice nearly 78 miles away from Nome, a batallion of scientists and officials across the state are working to overcome obstacles like the ice ridge.

Two tiny drones leased by the university from oil giant BP, which first used them to monitor its Gulf of Mexico spill, are among the tools deployed in Nome to check shore ice conditions.

Dubbed "flying king crabs" by researchers, the drones have legs for easy landing and weigh just 3 pounds. They can buzz along at 30 mph on missions up to 25 minutes long, covering about 1.8 miles, and up to 300 feet above the ice, all the while transmitting images viewed in realtime on a laptop. 

STORY: Convoy waits for safest route into Nome

Those images will be used by officials in Nome as well as crew on the fuel tanker Renda and the Coast Guard cutter Healy.

Greg Walker, who runs the drone program at the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute, told msnbc.com that the researchers are "trying to give them and the responders here in Nome insight into the last mile of ice they will encounter."

The images should help choose the best places to lay the fuel hose as well as "with issues like good access routes to the mooring and a better understanding of the area for their spill prevention planning," he added. 

As for the convoy's progress, Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis told msnbc.com that after a day of no progress on Tuesday, when the ships were 97 miles out, some progress was made Wednesday, a day that also saw officials assess which route through compact ice would be safest.

"No real distance was made Tuesday due to very thick ice and currents," she said. "Today they are 69 nautical miles, or about 78 regular miles, away from Nome as of 7:30 a.m." local time.

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