Dog Days of Winter? Alaska's Lack of Snow Forces Change in Iditarod

For just the second time in 43 years, the start of the sled dog showdown is moved north, to Fairbanks.
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Norwegian Ralph Johannessen's dog team races down a street during the start of the Iditarod in Willow, Alaska, in 2014.


A lack of snow in the Alaska community where the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race traditionally begins has forced organizers to move the starting line about 300 miles (480 kilometers) north, to Fairbanks, for the second time in the event's 43-year history.

Recent helicopter surveys of the Alaska Range near Willow, the town just north of Anchorage where the roughly 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometer) race usually begins, revealed that "snow conditions were worse in critical areas than in 2014 and therefore not safe enough for the upcoming race," the Iditarod Trail Committee said in a statement.

Seventy-nine teams—each consisting of 16 sled dogs and a human musher—are gearing up for the endurance race that is a symbol of Alaska's rugged frontier culture. This year's race begins March 9; winners typically have taken eight to ten days to complete the course, often in blizzard and whiteout conditions. (Read "5 Surprising Facts About the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.")

"It's unfortunate that we have to make this very important decision this far out, but the task of getting tons of supplies and equipment in the right places, on time, begins this week," Mark Nordman, the race director, said in a statement.

Usually, 50 to 70 teams mush across the Alaska wilderness, from Willow to the remote western town of Nome (map), in hopes of becoming top dog. It's not unusual for some dogs to drop out during the race; each team must finish with at least six dogs pulling the sled. (Read about what it takes to compete in the Iditarod.)

Unseasonably warm weather moved the starting line in 2003, when the trail near Willow was impassable due to deteriorating conditions. The race was moved to Fairbanks.

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Iditarod mushers move across an area called the Farewell Burn in 2012.


Baked Alaska

This year's poor snowfall fits with a trend of rising temperatures in Alaska, whose rate of warming was twice the national average in the past 50 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

During that time frame, the state's temperatures have increased by an average of 3.4°F (1.8 °C). Winter warming has been even greater, rising by an average of 6.3°F (3.5°C).

Climatologists have estimated that because of climate change, average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to increase an additional 3.5 to 7°F (1.9 to 3.8°C) by the middle of this century. (Read about drunken trees-dramatic signs of climate change in Alaska.)

Kevin Trenberth, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said by email that "we always experience some regions with below normal temperatures and others above normal, as comes naturally from weather patterns."

"But on top of that is a global warming component. Under the right circumstances it can boost snows, as in New England, but in other circumstances, the snow melts and some precipitation even falls as rain."

In West Yellowstone, Montana, sled dog mushers of all ages gather to compete in the Rodeo Run, a two-day race. These sled dogs aren't just the typical Siberian husky—some have been crossed with other breeds to go farther and faster.

This winter has hit New England particularly hard-six feet (1.8 meters) of snow has buried some areas of Boston, Massachusetts, for instance.

Trenberth added that "when conditions are unfavorable for snow, the extra heat from global warming melts the snow pack and likely increases the odds of what is seen for the Iditarod," he said.

"Perhaps," he quipped, "they should move it to Boston?"

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