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Legendary Iditarod Sled Dog Race Moved North As Alaska Deals With Climate Change

Climate

Alaska is having yet another mild winter. A ski area near Juneau recently had to close until it gets more snow. Now, the iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is dealing with the consequences of a changing climate. For only the second time in its 43-year history, the start of the Iditarod will move north to Fairbanks.

Traditionally, the race starts in Anchorage, but due to a lack of snow in certain areas, the starting line will be moved 300 miles north. The starting line was moved to Fairbanks one other time in 2003 when unseasonably warm weather made the trail impassable.

The ceremonial start will still take place in Anchorage on March 7, but the official start of the race will be in Fairbanks on March 9. The race will still end in Nome as always, but the rerouted course is 968 miles long as opposed to the standard 987 miles from Anchorage.

Photo credit: Alaska Department of Natural Resources

The decision to reroute the course was made last week when the board of directors of the Iditarod Trail Committee held a special meeting. Board members heard a trail report from a committee, which flew over various portions of the trail to assess the conditions and found that "conditions were worse in the critical areas than in 2014 and therefore, not safe enough for this year’s race."

The race was almost moved to Fairbanks last year because of a lack of snow, but officials decided to keep the start of the race in Anchorage. "Bruised and beaten up" racers were extremely critical of that decision because the trail was so treacherous, according to News Miner. This year, the course from Anchorage looked even worse. "The troublesome areas had half as much snow as in 2014, and the bad spots were twice as long," said Rick Swenson, Trail Committee board member.

“This year, you can’t go through a rock,” said board member Aaron Burmeister. “There’s boulders and rocks that we’ve never seen there in 20-some years that are littering all the gorge, places that you’d never even see a rock because you’re going over feet of snow going through there. This year, you’re looking at bare ground.”

“While some snow did fall east of the Alaska Range over the past couple of weeks, other parts of the trail did not get much or any of it at all,” said Stan Hooley, executive director for the Iditarod Trail Committee. It might seem early to make the call, but Race Marshall Mark Nordman explains that transporting and coordinating all of the supplies and equipment takes time.

The unseasonably warm weather and lack of snow is not some anomaly. Over the past 50 years, temperatures across Alaska increased by an average of 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Alaska's winter warming was twice the national average over that time period, and average annual temperatures in the state are projected to increase 3.5 to 7 degrees by 2050.

Anywhere from 50 to 100 teams race every year. The sport has a long history that goes back far before it became a formalized race when it was simply a means of transportation. Now, climate change puts the legacy of the "last great race" in question.

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.