This story first appeared on Top country news And it is a body Climate Desk Cooperation.
Mike Williams Jr. can’t remember when he started sledding, but once he got strong enough to catch sled dogs, it became his passion. At first, he ran after school on 3- and 4-mile trails with his father’s dogs in Akiak, Alaska. In the year He ran the Iditarod for the first time in 2010 and has raced it seven times since then.
The Iditarod is Alaska’s most famous sporting event. Sled dogs and their handlers travel the thousand-mile route from Anchorage to Nome each year to commemorate the 1925 Sled Run. The road is only in winter months, only when the rivers and lakes are frozen. But the trail has become more difficult over the past two decades as the region has warmed, making trail conditions unsafe. The 51st annual running of the Iditarod begins on March 4, but this year there are fewer teams than usual. In the past there were sometimes as many as 85 teams, but now there are only 33 – the lowest participation in the race’s history.
There are many reasons for this decline, but climate change is not a contributing factor. “Our ecosystem is on fire right now in the state of Alaska,” said Chase St. George, chief operating officer of the Iditarod Trail Committee, which is organizing what some are calling “the last great race.” Saint George began his role in In 2016, he said the race had to adapt to unpredictable weather, which was creating new obstacles and safety hazards for the grooms and the dogs. Rivers, streams, and lakes at road crossings are not freezing as reliably as they used to, and plants are growing in new places and obstructing the road. An unseasonably warm storm could bring more rain than snow, washing away the critical sea ice in Norton Sound that the grooms must cross towards the end of the race. Permafrost is melting, destabilizing once-frozen terrain, and summer wildfires are becoming more common, meaning charred trees can fall in the way.
Musher Williams, of Akiac, said in the years since he started competing, he’s noticed changes in the landscape and how it’s affected his trail. In the year He recalls a warm winter in 2014, when the trail was frozen in some areas and reduced to bare ground in others. This made for such a bumpy ride that mushers ended up with sprained ankles, bruises, and torn skis.
“That year was very difficult for training and racing, and running the Iditarod in those conditions was very challenging for the entire race,” he said. “And it was humbling. I’d say a lot of us were lucky to get through that course unscathed, because some people did.”