It's So Warm in Alaska Snow Has to Be Brought in by Train for Iditarod
This winter has been shockingly warm in the Arctic, producing one of the mildest winters on record for Alaska.
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, Alaska’s temperatures this winter have averaged about 10 degrees above normal, ranking third warmest since at least 1925. And snowfall has been 10 percent of normal in central, interior and southeast Alaska.
Year-to-date snowfall for Interior, Central, and Southeast Alaska. :( #akwx https://t.co/wX26bSKoYl— Brian Brettschneider (@Brian Brettschneider)1455243621.0
It's the second year in a row that Alaska has seen record warmth, with the winter of 2014-2015 clocking temperatures 4 to 10 degrees above normal.
"This year’s strong El Nino event, and the associated warmth of the Pacific Ocean, is likely partly to blame, along with the cyclical Pacific Decadal Oscillation—which is in its warm phase," explained The Washington Post. "The warmth is also occurring against a backdrop of record low Arctic sea ice and a long-term trend towards higher temperatures, due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."
For the second month in a row, Arctic sea ice was at a record low level for its average extent. And Alaska has already seen its second wildfire of the year, putting the state's wildfire season weeks earlier than normal and sparking fears of yet another brutal summer.
“For me, I always would think an early season was when we started getting [fires] in mid-April,” Norm McDonald, a state fire management officer, told Alaska Dispatch News. “And then over the last few years that’s changed to mid-March and now the end of February.”
All this is wreaking havoc on Alaska's wintertime activities, such as the famed Iditarod, which begins this Saturday. For the second year in a row, snow has to be brought into Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the race. Last year, it was trucked in. This year, it has to be brought by rail.
Starved for snow, Anchorage awaits 7 train loads from Fairbanks for #Iditarod start https://t.co/QBsuYKfm5Q https://t.co/vWRY8CC3Hi— KTUU.com (@KTUU.com)1456970604.0
Some 300 cubic yards (seven railcars' worth) of snow is being transported by train from Fairbanks, an Alaska Railroad spokesperson told Alaska Dispatch News. Iditarod officials also announced that they will shorten the ceremonial start from 11 miles to three due to the lack of snow.
Last year, officials had to reroute the Iditarod twice because of minimal snow coverage on certain parts of the trail. The year before that, low snow produced dangerous trail conditions that resulted in injuries that knocked some mushers out of the race.
The imported snow will also be used for a lesser known event, the Running of the Reindeer, in which people race reindeer through the streets of Anchorage.
Here's footage of an "antler cam" strapped onto one of the participating reindeers:
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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