The Mush in the Iditarod May Soon Be Melted Snow

ANCHORAGE — A few miles and a few days from this weekend’s start of the Iditarod sled dog race, a glaciologist named Shad O’Neel stood in his sun-drenched office at the United States Geological Survey, talking about climate change.

The walls displayed striking before-and-after photographs of the Columbia Glacier and others in Alaska. Even a nonscientist could see that they were shrinking, sometimes radically so in a decade or less.

O’Neel pulled out a color-coded map of mountain ranges in the southern part of the state, including the Alaska Range, through which 52 sled dog teams race north along the Iditarod trail on their 1,000-mile trek to Nome. Most ranges were deep shades of red, meaning the glaciers there had lost enormous quantities of mass, measured in enormous-sounding units like gigatons.

“We’re not seeing anything in the climate data suggesting that we’re going to start gaining glacier ice in Alaska,” O’Neel said.

Shad O’Neel, a glaciologist in Anchorage, understands that dog mushers are on the front line of climate change, perhaps more than any other type of athlete.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times O’Neel’s office at the United States Geological Survey in Anchorage is filled with maps and photographs that show how Alaska’s glaciers are shrinking.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times

He is not one of the Iditarod’s famed dog mushers. But he understands that they are on the front line of climate change, perhaps more so than any other type of athlete. They see and feel the effects of it in small but profound ways, through the winter.

Rivers and creeks, used as frozen highways for sleds, are not reliably freezing as expected. Brush grows where it never used to, clogging old routes. Freakish storms, including midwinter rain, and sea-ice breakups increasingly wreak havoc on their sport and livelihood.

What used to be a given in Alaska — enough snow and ice to run the Iditarod and a slew of other sled dog races without much worry — is now fraught with perennial uncertainty.

The cosmic question is how long races like the Iditarod in places like Alaska can keep finding long, continuous threads of snow and ice in a region warming more quickly than most places on the planet.

Several races were altered, shortened or canceled this season. Every year, including this one, adjustments are made to counter problems attributed to warming. Twice in the past five years, the Iditarod moved the start to Fairbanks, 350 miles north.

People now wonder aloud whether the Iditarod will have to climb the latitudinal ladder permanently to escape, or even if its long-term future is in peril.

“In the grand scheme, it’s a very big deal,” said Jeff King, who this year is competing in his 29th Iditarod, beginning Sunday, and has won four times. “What we don’t know is how much, and how fast, climate change will result in those things.”


The Iditarod in 2015. Snow was brought in by trucks to accommodate the race because of a lack of snowfall. CreditJoshua Corbett/Picture Alliance, via Getty Images

Most of the Iditarod trail is a loose braid, not a permanent and marked route. It meanders so much that the distance on the ground is nearly twice what it is by air.

The race, founded in 1973 and not immune to man-made troubles in recent years over treatment of the dogs and whether it is simply outdated, follows the rough, historic route used more than 100 years ago to connect the southern coastal cities with the ice-locked ports and inland villages (including Iditarod, now a ghost town) to the north.

“It’s right in our mission statement — to preserve and protect the sled dog and the historic Iditarod trail,” said Chas St. George, the interim chief executive and former chief operations officer of the Iditarod Trail Committee.

It is proving increasingly difficult. At its current rate, Alaska’s average temperature in 2050 will be 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information. No other state is warming faster than 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit per 100 years, based on the warming rate since 1950.

Among NOAA’s 13 designated climate divisions in Alaska, the state’s Central Interior and West Coast, the regions where most of the Iditarod takes place, are experiencing the second- and third-fastest temperature rises. Only the North Slope is warming faster.

“It’s Alaska — this is ground zero,” St. George said.

In 2008, the Iditarod’s official start moved 40 miles, from Wasilla to Willow, because of concerns over climate change and urban sprawl.

The race attempts to alternate annually between “southern” and “northern” routes, referring to a midrace section of about 300 miles between Ophir and Kaltag — one route a crescent to the south, the other to the north. Twice since 2015, conditions have not let the race use the scheduled southern route.

Handler Grayson Bruton and Ron Homan groomed Mitch Seavey’s dog team before the start of the race on Saturday.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times An Iditarod sign inside Mitch Seavey’s shop at his kennel in Sterling, Alaska.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times

It will be used this year, but teams will find plenty of climate-caused detours and wrinkles. Twenty temporary bridges, more than usual, were built in and around the Dalzell Gorge, where open water is a rising concern. The usual shortcut across the Norton Sound on the Bering Sea was erased by a wicked storm that broke up the sea ice, tossing chunks onto shore.

“They had their classic fall storm here in February,” the race director, Mark Nordman, said.

Such changes are common in sled dog races these days. In February, the prestigious 1,000-mile Yukon Quest chopped out a 77-mile chunk that lacked snow. (Mushers and dog teams trucked to the next stopover.)

The Knik 200, not far from Anchorage, is searching for a new route entirely.

“Establishing and maintaining a safe trail from the race start to the finish line has become a recurring challenge for the last several years of the Knik races,” race organizers said in canceling the event in January. “This unpredictability will likely continue. It is for this reason that we have already begun to determine an alternate route that will be less vulnerable to warmer and inconsistent winter temperatures.”

The Willow 300 in late January was canceled after days of rain ravaged the course. It takes place near the start of the Iditarod.

“I’m not a scientist, but we recognize the winters are taking longer to set in, for lack of a better word,” said Marshall Cogdill, a Willow 300 board member. “We were concerned we couldn’t do a mass start because we need the lake ice to be safe. As we got closer, the weather allowed the ice to thicken up. But then the rain came.”

Five of the six warmest December-to-February stretches on record (since 1925) have taken place this century, with three of them since 2015.

“In the past, you get to late February or early March, things are kind of set,” said Rick Thoman, climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “It’s been cold for months, we’ve got the snow, the sea ice is fast and locked in. You bust in the trail and as long as you don’t get a big bump of snow, you’re good to go.”

That was then. This is now.

“Those days are probably behind us,” Thoman said.

The area near the start of the race in Willow has seen the effects of climate change, with less snow.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times

Climate might be the most existential threat to the Iditarod, but it is hardly the only issue. Judging from headlines that ricocheted around the globe the past couple of years, the Iditarod is an event under siege, threatened by everything from fleeing sponsors to dying dogs, management upheaval, even a dog-doping scandal.

Most sensational headlines have faded in the past year. The musher whose dogs tested positive in 2017, the four-time champion Dallas Seavey, was cleared of any wrongdoing in December and received an apology from the Iditarod.

New sponsors, mostly local, have come on board. A search for a new chief executive is underway, and the board is flush with new faces.

Animal-rights activists remain vocal, while the Iditarod and the dog-mushing community are steadfast in their belief that the dogs are well cared for. A rule disqualifying mushers if one of their dogs dies during the race has been reinstated after a 25-year absence.

Optimism about the business end of the Iditarod is high among longtime mushers.

“The main thing that could have caused the Iditarod to not flourish would have been internal,” said Mitch Seavey, a three-time winner and the father of Dallas. “As the race organization learns how to present itself and package itself better, and make people aware of what it is we actually do here, that to me is a healthy defense against any naysayers.”

Mitch Seavey believes that the race may have to adapt and change course in response to climate change, but that it will endure.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times One of Seavey’s dogs was groomed in preparation for the race.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times

As King put it: “This is a local event, regional event, that gets worldwide exposure. It’s just not for everybody in a worldwide audience.”

But global warming is different than a public-relations fire. The Iditarod treats it as a slow-motion crisis, handling problems as they come, trying to anticipate the future.

For now, more and more work is done during the summer to reroute troublesome sections. In the winter, workers — mostly volunteers from towns and villages along the route — determine the best paths. The idea is to desperately avoid open water, which is increasingly difficult, by steering the trail clear or building makeshift bridges of logs and snow where creek crossings are required.

The question the Iditarod is starting to ask, as other races have already done, is whether it will need to move. And is it still the Iditarod if it is not on the historic Iditarod trail?

“My gut feeling is, no, you don’t move it,” said the musher Brent Sass, an Iditarod veteran who recently won his second Yukon Quest. “We’re all working together to continue keeping the tradition going. And if we’ve got to change some things in the beginning of the race, so be it.

“Now, ask me again in 10 years,” he continued, “and maybe we’ve had Iditarods canceled and maybe they’ve run only 500 miles, and we’ll worry about it.”

Mitch Seavey, who first raced in the Iditarod in 1982 and last won it in 2017, is among those not too concerned, yet.

“Most of these races are in the southern area of the state and the coastal areas of the state,” he said. “But there are vast areas of Alaska that are covered in snow and in a deep freeze right now. We might have to adapt and adjust and move.”

He laughed.

“All I’m saying is that I think the Iditarod will adjust,” he said. “And from where I sit in Alaska, there’s a lot of latitude left to go.”

Willow Lake, the start of the Iditarod.CreditAsh Adams for The New York Times
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