The dogs are ready, the gear is in place, and mushers are gathering for this weekend’s start of Alaska’s classic sled dog race, the Iditarod.
There’s just one thing missing: snow.
After one of the warmest Januaries in Alaska’s meteorological record books, parts of the epic thousand-mile sled dog route were bare ground and open water as recently as last week—not exactly the winter wonderland that’s more typical this time of the year in what is usually one of the coldest parts of North America.
In fact, by some estimates, the East Coast has had a much more brutal winter:
Alaska’s warmth has been staggering in recent weeks.
Nome, the terminus of the race, hit a record 51 degrees on Jan. 27—a whopping 40 degrees warmer than normal for the date and the highest January temperature there in more than 100 years. February hasn’t been much better. There were only 2 inches of fresh snow in Nome for the first three weeks of the month, and snowpack had dwindled to a measly 3 inches until just this week.
I checked with the National Weather Service, and sure enough, parts of Alaska are on track to make this among the warmest winters on record. (Meteorological winter runs from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28.)
As you can guess, warm temperatures and snow don’t really mix. And that’s thrown race organizers and mushers into a tizzy.
Earlier this month Iditarod organizers nixed an idea to move the start of the race 300 miles north to Fairbanks, where there’s been a bit more snow this winter. Mushers weren’t particularly happy with the decision, openly voicing concerns about safety—for dog and human. The Iditarod actually did move to Fairbanks in 2003, when a similar combination of warm temperatures and a lack of snow plagued the state. The 2003 reroute was the only time weather forced the race to start in Fairbanks in the race’s 41-year history, according to the Anchorage Daily News. This year organizers wanted to stick to the regular route and hatched a plan to deploy high-powered trail-grooming equipment to crunch miles and miles of ice into more suitable powder if the need arose.
Trail conditions have improved in recent days, with a fresh few inches marking the state’s largest snowfall in more than a month. However, another round of exceptionally warm weather this week and a sketchy forecast have caused a renewed bout of concern.*
The tricky training conditions haven’t stopped rookie musher Monica Zappa, who will be embarking on her first Iditarod this weekend. As it happens, Zappa is also a meteorologist. Our training briefly overlapped at the University of Oklahoma, nearly a decade ago.
Intrigued that she had qualified for one of the most famous sporting events in America, I reached Zappa by phone at her home in southern Alaska. While we were chatting, her crew was working to install plastic runners on her sled, in a last-ditch effort to strengthen it for what they expect will be a rough ride.
Our conversation below has been lightly edited.
So, what’s it like there right now?
Well, we finally got some snow this week. There’s about 3–4 inches on the ground over the ice right now. That’s not much. Our winter's been ridiculous. I’m from Wisconsin originally. We should have been training down there. But it's hard to plan for the weather, you know. A few weeks ago, there was even rain in Fairbanks, which is totally unheard of. Pretty much the whole state of Alaska has been in this really weird weather pattern.
How long have you lived in Alaska? What’s been different about training this year?
This is my fourth season here. Last year there was a big January thaw. It was kind of a bad year, but not nearly as bad as this year. Other mushers who’ve been here much longer than me say this is the worst snow year in maybe 30 years.
We've only been able to train where we live about a month, and even that was sparse. So, we’ve been dealing with this challenge for a while. In January it rained and rained. So we went north for a while to train on the Denali Highway. The dogs don't enjoy it nearly as much as running on sleds.
But everybody’s in the same boat. Other mushers have even had to fly their dogs to other places to train. I can't let the weather get in my way.