Mild Winter Forces Iditarod Organizers To Change Race’s Route For The Second Time Ever

Dogs on the team of Anna Berrington run in the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAN JOLING
Dogs on the team of Anna Berrington run in the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAN JOLING

Once again, the world’s most famous dog-sledding race has been forced to change plans because of climate change.

For the second year in the race’s 43-year history, the Iditarod has been forced to move its starting line to Fairbanks, AK, a point about 300 miles north of the race’s typical starting line in Willow, AK. The race’s organizers decided to move the starting point because there wasn’t enough snow along parts of the race’s traditional route. Alaska’s winter has been unusually warm this year, and Anchorage has seen a snowfall that, so far, is the second-lowest on record.

“While some snow did fall east of the Alaska Range over the past couple of weeks, other parts of the trail, in very critical areas, did not get much or any of it,” Stan Hooley, Executive Director of the Iditarod Trail Committee, said in a statement.

The new route out of Fairbanks will be 19 miles shorter than the Iditarod’s usual route, coming in at 968 miles instead of the usual 987, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports. The race, which consists of 79 teams of 16 sled dogs and one human, will still start March 9.

Last year, race officials grappled with a similar decision over whether to change the race’s starting point due to lack of snow. They ultimately decided to keep the race in Willow, a decision that earned them criticism from race participants, who said conditions along parts of the trail were terrible. One racer called the trail a “minefield,” and another said it was the “roughest” he’d ever seen. Race participants also suffered injuries: the bare ground made it hard for sleds to glide smoothly, and was far less forgiving than snow when mushers fell.

This year, race organizers are hoping to avoid that. Still, the decision was a hard one to make: Aaron Burmeister, a musher from Nome, AK called the choice “unfortunate,” because of how much mushers look forward to racing the traditional trail.

“This year, you can’t go through a rock,” Burmeister, an Iditarod Trail Committee board member, said. “There’s boulders and rocks that we’ve never seen there in 20-some years that are littering all the gorge, places that you’d never even see a rock because you’re going over feet of snow going through there. This year, you’re looking at bare ground.”

The race’s starting point has been moved once before: in 2003, due to too-high temperatures. These impacts on a race that depends on ice and snow aren’t surprising: Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. over the last 50 years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Last year, Alaska experienced one of its warmest winters on record, and Nome, the ending point of the Iditarod, experienced its highest January temperature in more than 100 years.

Iditarod participant Monica Zappa told Slate last year that she thinks that, as snow conditions become less dependable in the future, the race will have to adapt.

“My idea is that we should shift to floating location of races. In the future we may just have to go to the place that has the best trails. You know, have five or six locations, and then the week before the race, they make the call on which location is the best,” she said. “It’s hard to say what might happen.”

Other winter sports are feeling the strain of climate change too: the National Hockey League issued a report last year that warned that climate change could threaten hockey’s future. The league also detailed its carbon footprint in the report and noted ways its plans to reduce it. Skiing and snowboarding also suffer when snow is low: EPA Chief Gina McCarthy visited the X Games in Aspen, Colorado last month to help draw attention to climate change’s effects on the winter games.