Contenders in Alaska's annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race are used to harsh conditions — blizzards that wipe out visibility and temperatures that plunge far below zero — as they make their way along 1,100 miles of trails over eight or nine days of competition.
But, on Tuesday, race organizers announced that the starting point of this year's race will be moved due to a lack of snow, a change that has happened only one other time in the race's 43-year history, in 2003.
"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," Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley said.
The famous sledding competition, which offers the highest cash prize of any race in the sport, is set to begin on the morning of March 7th in Anchorage with a ceremonial 11-mile leg. The actual racing traditionally begins the next day, in Willow, in what's known as the restart.
A helicopter flyover of the route revealed that key parts of the trail lacked snow, so the board unanimously voted to move the restart to Fairbanks, about 300 miles further north. The race will start a day later, on March 9, due the time needed to move the teams and supplies to the right places.
"Certain parts of the trail, low snow or no snow isn't a deal breaker," Hooley told KTVA Alaska. "Then certain sections, the Dalzell Gorge particularly, it's a big problem. And as unfavorable as conditions were by the time the race went through that section of the trail last year, it's even worse this year."
The two-mile Dalzell Gorge comes toward the end of a 32-mile leg early in the race, after a 200-foot downhill drop and a sign marked "Watch Your Ass." Lack of snow and flowing water in the creek that runs through the gorge can cause trouble for the mushers. Organizers removed this section from the race.
'If you're going over bare ground, it takes a toll, and the last thing you want to do is harm your dogs.'
The race also requires crossing several rivers and small streams. In warm weather, mushers and their teams risk falling through weak ice.
"The mushers are probably very interested in moving the race, because there are certain parts of the race where if there isn't snow it's really rough on the dogs, really rough on the sleds," Craig Fleener, Arctic Policy Advisor to Alaska's governor, told VICE News. "If you're going over bare ground, it takes a toll ,and the last thing you want to do is harm your dogs."
Just under 20 inches of snow have fallen in Anchorage this winter, according to data from the Alaska Climate Research Center. The average for this time of year is about 44 inches.
Across the state, 18 days in January had temperatures above the 30-year average, with a monthly mean temperature nearly four degrees higher than usual.
Several new records were set for daily high temperatures in November, December, and January, mostly in the southeastern portion of the state. No new record lows were set.
"I think there is a trend toward increasing temperatures here in Alaska and in the Arctic in general, but from year to year the weather itself can be very variable," Alice Edwards of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, told VICE News. "Our January in particular was very much warmer than normal across much of the state."
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