Climate Change Turns Famed Dogsled Race to Mush

Global warming hits another sport as a lack of snow forces the Iditarod to move north.

(Photo: Jim Watson/Getty Images)

Feb 13, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Alaska’s famous Iditarod race pits some of the toughest competitors in the world against one another: sled dogs racing across 1,000 miles of frozen tundra.

Well, maybe not this year. Dirt might have to do.

For only the second time in the 43-year history of the event, organizers are altering the route of the 2015 racecourse, saying there isn’t enough snow on the ground for the teams to safely sled on the traditional trail.

The lack of snow and warming winter temperatures at Alaska’s iconic competition are more examples of how climate change is impacting winter sports.

The starting point of the race is usually about 80 miles outside Anchorage. But the area has only received about 19 inches of snow since August—about 30 inches below normal. That has forced organizers to move the starting line north to Fairbanks.

The lack of snow is just part the problem.

Alaska is heating up. Over the past 50 years, average temperatures across the state have increased by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and winters are around 6.3 degrees hotter.

While the dogs are all-terrain capable (they don’t really care if it’s snow, ice, gravel, or dirt), a snowless trail can be treacherous for the racers and their sleds.

Similar conditions hit last year’s event, considered by many to be the most dangerous race ever, with many mushers pulling out early and others ending up seriously injured during the multiday race.

Musher Cindy Abbott fell into the “did not finish” category in last year’s Iditarod, deeming the icy, rocky, mostly snowless course too dangerous for her and her dogs after nearly crashing in an icy gorge. Just in case you’re questioning her toughness, she climbed Mount Everest in 2010—three years after she was diagnosed with a rare vascular disease that left her blind in one eye.

“This race is harder than Everest even when there’s actually snow on the ground,” Abbott, 50, said in an interview. “Without it, it’s pretty scary. I’m all for the race course change if it means we’re safer out there.”

In recent years, the list of canceled Alaska-based, snow-reliant events—including snowmobile races, skiing events, and dogsled races—has been growing, according to Pacific Standard.

“I think we’re all worried about the weather,” Iditarod race director Stan Hooley told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “There’s a pattern that’s developed. And that’s a concern to all of us.”