Safety Sound, Nome-Council Highway

Safety Sound, Nome-Council Highway

by | Apr 26, 2023

Safety Sound is a lagoon along the Nome-Council Highway, formed by barrier beaches with elevations up to 14 feet (4.2 m), which extends 15 miles (24 km) along the north coast of Norton Sound between Cape Nome to the west and the Solomon River to the east, about 52 miles (84 km) west-southwest of Golovin and 20 miles (32 km) east of Nome, Alaska. Norton Sound is an embayment of the Bering Sea about 150 miles (240 km) long and 125 miles (200 km) wide that is typically ice-free only from June to October. Safety Sound was surveyed and named ‘Port Safety’ in 1899 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, probably referring to the sheltered harbor convenient for the loading and unloading of freight, at that time destined for the gold mines on the Seward Peninsula. The lagoon is fed by three watersheds; the Flambeau River that drains 53,236 acres (21,544 ha), Eldorado River that drains 111,599 acres (45,163 ha), and the Bonanza River that drains 74,904 acres (30,312 ha). None of the rivers draining into Safety Sound is more than 30 miles (48 km) long, and all three rivers flow south from the Kigluaik Mountains. The terrain bordering the lagoon is low and marshy suggesting that the sound is a drowned river delta that developed a barrier beach as sea levels rose. The only outlets to Norton Sound are two gaps in the barrier beach; Safety Inlet and Solomon Inlet, about 6 miles (10 km) and 15 miles (24 km), respectively, east of Cape Nome. The cape is a prominent headland on the Seward Peninsula and geographically divides the Bering Sea to the west from Norton Sound to the east.

Cape Nome is an ideal lookout for seals, whales, and walruses, and a prehistorical village called Ayasayuk was situated on its lower slopes with 60 to 100 residents. The lagoon provides an abundance of food and archaeological remains consisting of house pits and middens have also been found on the beach ridges of Safety Sound suggesting continuous human occupation dating to the Norton tradition. The Norton people inhabited the area from 1000 BC to about 800 AD.  They used flake-stone tools like their predecessors, the Arctic small tool tradition, but they were more marine-oriented and brought new technologies such as oil-burning lamps and clay vessels into use. Seal hunting is consistently good at Safety Inlet because winds and currents create areas of open water even in the coldest months. In the summer, after the ice has gone, spotted or harbor seals are occasionally taken in the brackish waters of the lagoon. The birds of Safety Sound area are abundant and large quantities of sea bird eggs are collected in late June and July. Between 1840 and 1870, the caribou population of the Seward Peninsula decreased and by 1900, they had disappeared resulting in fish becoming an important source of food, particularly chum salmon, humpback whitefish, and Dolly Varden char. Today, about 30 Iñupiaq houses are on the barrier beach between Cape Nome and Safety Inlet along the Nome-Council Highway.

The road connecting Nome and Council began as a collection of informal trails connecting Nome with mining communities established on the Seward Peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1906, the Alaska Road Commission constructed a wagon road along most of the length of the trails from Nome to Council. The road travels east from Nome, following the shore of the Bering Sea with fixed bridges crossing the Safety and Solomon Inlets until it reaches the ghost town of Solomon. From there, the route travels northeast through the interior of the Seward Peninsula before it terminates on the south bank of the Niukluk River, south of Council. The portion of the road between Nome and Solomon is part of the Iditarod Trail and the highway passes several historic sites associated with the trail and the area’s gold mining history. In the days when dog teams were an essential mode of transportation for supplies and people, roadhouses were built about every 20 miles (32 km) along the road for travelers seeking shelter and food. The historic Safety Roadhouse is 22 miles (35 km) from Nome and is open in summer but closes in the winter when the road becomes impassable, however it opens for several weeks in March to serve as the final checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail. Read more here and here. Explore more of Safety Sound and the Nome-Council Highway here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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