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Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Racers Adapt

Climate change, the bane of the dog musher


Dallas Seavey runs overland along the Bering Sea coast 8 miles from the finish line in Nome in 25 mph winds, Iditarod 2012.

©2013 Jeff Schultz / AlaskaStock.com


“Northern Alaska was once a very warm country. Alaska was close to the sun.” So writes William Oquilluk in his book, People of Kauwerak. Oquilluk, an Iñupiat Eskimo, sought the history of his people from elders in Teller, Mary’s Igloo and other northern villages. When he would hear the same story from three sources, he would write it down to preserve the legends.

Alaskans have been watching the weather and telling stories about it for as long as there have been people living in this Great Land. Some reports were for official purposes, some for passing on indigenous knowledge, and some as the topic of dinner table conversation.

R. L. Goodwin, district engineer of the Alaska Road Commission, surveyed a route from Seward to Nome to open the country to resource exploration. Goodwin reported deep snows in the passes of the Chugach Mountains in 1908.

Newspaper accounts frequently relayed reports of unusually harsh conditions, deep snows one season and a scarcity the next. The Nome Nugget and Iditarod Pioneer published Roald Amundsen’s prediction of climate change in 1912. While in Nome, the famous explorer hypothesized that the “great ice wedge which lay between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans was constantly moving and would eventually break causing a flow into the Atlantic.” Amundsen predicted warmer Pacific waters would then flow into the Bering Sea.

In 1925 when the port city of Nome was experiencing a deadly diphtheria outbreak, Wild Bill Shannon departed Nenana with the lifesaving serum in minus 43 degrees Fahrenheit weather. Winter ice had closed the port so it fell to the intrepid sled dog drivers to brave the elements and relay the serum 674 miles across tundra and frozen rivers.

Reports fixed the wind chill on Norton Sound at minus 83 when Leonhard Seppala took the handoff.

Today’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race competitors and race organizers face the same variable conditions that indigenous peoples, adventurers, miners and pioneers have experienced over both ancient and modern history. Dan Seavey, who has run the Iditarod five times between 1973 and 2012, recalls ’74 being the coldest run in his memory.

“Seven of us went into snow cave survival mode in Ptarmigan Pass,” he says. “When George Attla and I arrived at the Salmon River check point near McGrath, the thermometer registered minus 58 degrees.”

However, a few days later upon arrival in Nome, water was standing in the streets.

Seavey says there are three common race conditions: warm, cold and windy. “One must understand that the race course passes through many mini local climate zones—coastal marine (warm and moist), the dry cold Interior, and Arctic coastal (warm and windy)—with a mix of transitional areas in between. So for a given race, one can expect wet, windy and snowy conditions.


Climate Variability

Climate variability is one of the factors that make the Iditarod the ultra-challenge it is, says Gary Hufford, senior scientist at the National Weather Service. He has been studying weather in relation to walrus habitat since the 1980s. Observations in specific areas can indicate a pattern of change, he says. However, from year to year there can be great variability, which makes interpretation of the data difficult.

In a 50-year study of mean annual temperatures for the entire state, 1976 stands out as the point in time when real change became apparent. Most of the mean annual temperatures after 1976 are above zero.

However, Richard Thoman, lead forecaster for the NWS, says the last super-cold outbreak in 1989 was in the midst of the 25-year warming cycle. To prove the point about localized weather, he notes that Barrow experienced the warmest February on record in ‘89.

Thoman, who started his career in Nome, has 25 years of personal observations. “The temperatures are rising all across the state, particularly in winter and spring,” he says. His record of conditions in Nome shows a 51-degree difference in temperature on the days the winning musher crossed the finish line. Those temperatures are a wild up and down swing—the coldest being minus 19 degrees in 1995 and the warmest 32 degrees above zero in 1974.


Trail Conditions

For Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman, this means the Race Committee must be prepared for anything and everything. Having competed in the race himself five times and been involved in the logistics off and on since 1989, Nordman has developed an expertise in trail conditions.

“Every race is different. Last year we were dealing with record snowfall,” he says. As of January, the snow was minimal.

The modern course has been rerouted more than once, just as in the 1910s when snow or lack of it forced mail and supply drivers to alter routes. A 1915 edition of the Seward Gateway blamed slow mail delivery on lack of snow: “People have not been accustomed to having so little snow and the fact is overlooked that this year is an abnormal one in that respect. The freezing over of the Arm, Mr. Eide says, enables mushers to cut out the worst part of the trail.”

As recently as 2003, the sled dog race went to Fairbanks due to weather conditions. It was rerouted in burn areas after wildfires ravaged vegetation. Nordman recently had a crew in the Farewell area to clear debris.

Nordman spends a lot of time traveling along the trail with his associate Andy Willis, an Iditarod veteran, pilot and snowmobiler, surveying it firsthand. From early fall right up to race day, they fly the route and interact with the local population.

“I listen to what the elders say about what the berries are like and talk to those who travel sections such as Grayling to Kaltag about conditions they encountered,” he says.

That’s important because until the 1990s many communities like Shaktoolik and Koyuk did not record weather observations, says Rick Thoman. Those areas have very localized weather phenomena: blowing snow, low visibility and winds that can make the journey a fierce battle with nature.

One of the conditions of concern is sea ice. Gary Hufford says sea ice changes are one obvious indication of climate change. Since 1996, he observed an 8 degree Celsius temperature increase in the Bering and Chukchi seas. “We believe this is causing early melt in spring and later formation in winter,” he says, adding that he thinks that results in early winter storms, larger waves, erosion and coastal flooding.

“As always, the biggest issues for the Race in the future will be big snow storms, extreme cold and extreme warm. The portion of the Trail that will be affected first will be the section across Norton Sound. Change may affect the start of the race in March as winter shortens and spring starts earlier,” Hufford says.


Serious Support

Despite the variability, Race organizers take their work supporting the competitors seriously and try to give them as good a base trail as weather will allow.

“Sometimes I think the observers don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes to support the mushers and make sure the dogs are cared for,” says Nordman.

Each competitor ships between 1,500 pounds and 2,300 pounds of dog food, blankets and gear for the team to be cached along the route. As of early January there were 68 teams registered. That’s a lot of airplane trips up and down the Interior.

The Race Committee will provide 1,500 bales of straw purchased from Delta farmers, 1,200 cases of HEET for providing cooking and warming fires, and 15,300 trail markers posted along the vast open stretches of tundra and river bank.

Nordman characterizes the marshaling of the Iditarod as “probably the best reality show about Alaska.”

This year one of the issues being discussed was whether to reroute around the infamous “Steps” between the Finger Lake and Rainy Pass checkpoints. The Steps are a series of switchbacks leading down to the Happy River. “We now have a route that allows us to bypass pass them in a low-snow year,” says Nordman. The second route, which is good in a low-snow year, is a winter access trail established as a supply route to a mining exploration site.


Observe & Adapt

The Iditarod Race community is always evolving to be prepared for whatever conditions they will face. Racers must train their teams to be totally rounded for any conditions. That means training them in different locales where they can become accustomed to winds like the Topkok blow hole. Competitors like Mitch and Dallas Seavey, both champions, have to travel up north to train because Southcentral Alaska winters are often warmer and creeks are not frozen enough.

Dan Seavey says some mushers are breeding dogs with lighter coats due to the warming temperatures. And they all pack water repellant gear for those wet areas. Training is as much about observing and adapting to climate and conditions on the ground as it is about feeding and training the dogs.  

Author Joette Storm lives in Anchorage.

This originally appeared in the March 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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