The Iditarod, the annual sled-dog race across 975 miles of Alaska, started in earnest on Sunday. While much of the local buzz is on whether the usual strong slate of Alaskan mushers can hold off the Norwegians, much of the attention has turned to how the race will be affected by the warm weather Alaska experienced earlier this year.
“It’s a minefield out there,” said former Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff. “It’s the roughest I’ve ever seen,” said Jeff King, a 22-time race finisher. Aliy Zirkle reported “No snow. Zip. Zero. None.” Many suffered crashes, busted knees, bruises, and sprained ankles. Several are out of the race already.
With the polar vortex shifting winter upside-down and melting large parts of Alaska with springlike temperatures, the state began the year with more melting snow than usual. In fact, across the globe, January 2014 was the fourth-hottest January on record, according to NOAA.
The abnormally warm weather melted snow in Alaska, which made a return toward more normal cooler temperatures in much of February create a different kind of dangerous condition: ice, and hard debris.
DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow trained on “ribbons of ice” that reduced her usual number of training miles. Snowpack is what mushers need to race well, and even when it hasn’t been warm enough to rain, real snowfall can be hard to come by. In February, snowfall in Fairbanks is a foot below normal.
“The problem has been frequent mild days, which have been knocking down the snowcover,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jack Boston.
The Anchorage Daily News reported in its pre-race rundown that “conditions are hard, fast and icy south of the Alaska Range — or at least they were before the latest heat wave.”
In fact, the main reason that the race was not moved north from Willow to Fairbanks is because a construction company used specialized equipment to rebuild the trail.
Usually there is so much snow that race organizers have to pack down drifts of 10 feet or more to allow mushers to stop to resupply and get their dogs checked out. At the checkpoint near Finger Lake, volunteers encountered an entirely different kind of challenge: having to drill into the ice to even place trail markers.
When Martin Buser was training for his 31st race in January, he ran into some “challenging” conditions — like open water on the trail.
“We’ve encountered a lot of water and a lot of ice. … And rain,” he said.
Watery, slushy conditions are unusual for sled dogs and unusual for the middle of an Alaskan winter, though the dogs and humans are hardy enough to handle slush with grit and fortitude. The Daily News reported that “Willow musher Matt Failor titled a Facebook video ‘Should of made the team pull a surfboard’ showing his huskies pulling his sled without hesitation through several inches of slushy water.”
The chaotic winter weather lends trouble to the ski industry as well, even when there is plenty of snow. Jim MacInnes, president and CEO of the Benzie County ski area in Michigan, said there has been plenty of snow this year after almost none two winters ago — which has been chaotic because of a stalled jet stream. “And you never know where it’s going to stall or meander,” he said. “It could stall someplace that leaves you really cold, or someplace that leaves you really warm. So we have less certainty and wider weather swings.
This image from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer shows a block of colder-than-average air sitting over half of America and much of Canada — and plenty of warmer-than-normal areas in the Arctic, Europe, and the western U.S.
Combining all of those outliers for one global or regional average air temperature shows how even an extended cold snap in parts of the world does not even neutralize warmer-than-average temperatures across the globe. With some record cold temperatures being recorded on March 4, 2014, the world is still 0.11°C warmer than the 1979–2000 baseline on that day. Much of this extra heat is in the Arctic, which was 3.94°C warmer than usual.
The Anchorage Daily News has a photo stream of Day 3 of the race that shows how little snow cover is on the Iditarod trail. As of Tuesday, 10 mushers have left the race — most due to injuries caused by poor trail conditions.