Climate News Network

Temperature rise leaves dogs racing on thin ice

February 18, 2015, by Kieran Cooke

A dog sled team strains at the leash in Alaska’s Iditarod race.
Image: Frank Kovalchek via Wikimedia Commons

Alaska proudly boasts of hosting the “greatest dog sled race on Earth”, but climate change has forced a switch in the historic event’s course. LONDON, 18 February, 2015 − The Iditarod sled race in Alaska is a 1,000-mile endurance test in which competing teams of dogs and their drivers race at dizzying speeds across the frozen tundra. But this year’s race, due to be held in early March, has had to be re-routed due to a lack of snow. And Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the National Climatic Data Center, says rising temperatures are to blame. “This is a pretty big deal,” Crouch told the New York Times. “One of the things we’re seeing with climate change is that the high latitudes are experiencing the brunt of it. They’re very vulnerable.”

Seasonal increase

According to the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), temperatures in Alaska have increased by an average of 3.4˚F over the last 50 years, with winter temperatures showing the biggest seasonal increase, rising by an average of 6.3˚F over the same period. The EPA says the rate of warming in Alaska is double the national average. Estimates are that average temperatures in the state will increase a further 3.5˚F to 7˚F by mid-century. Deep snow – vital for what is described by Iditarod’s organisers as the greatest dog sled race on Earth – has been in particularly short supply this year, with only 19 inches falling since August on the race start near Alaska’s capital, Anchorage, compared with 50 inches normally. “This year, you can’t go through a rock,” one of the sled drivers – who are locally known as a “mushers” – told Alaska’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “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 through there. This year, you’re looking at bare ground.” For only the second time in its 43 year history, the start of the Iditarod has had to be moved away from close to Anchorage to near the city of Fairbanks, 360 miles further north.

“The Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly. It is time for the rest of the world to take notice, and also to take action . . .”

Although there was more snow for last year’s race, several competitors were forced out through injuries sustained after encountering bare rocks and gravel on the course. Alaska has been feeling the multiple impacts of climate change for some time. Coastal erosion is increasing as protective sea ice along the shoreline is being lost, and roads built across the state’s permafrost have fractured or collapsed due to ice melt. Other infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines, is under threat.

Cracks in permafrost

Homes have collapsed due to cracks opening in the permafrost beneath them. And people are being forced to abandon traditional hunting practices due to changes in wildlife distribution brought about by changes in temperature. At the end of last year, more than 35,000 walruses were found crowded together on a beach in northeast Alaska. “Due to loss of ice in offshore areas, walruses are foraging in more coastal areas and using beaches for resting,” said a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the Artic,” Margaret Williams, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic programme, told the Associated Press news agency. “And that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly. “It is time for the rest of the world to take notice, and also to take action to address the root cause of climate change.” – Climate News Network

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