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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Warm Winter Wreaks Havoc on Iditarod Start

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) - Alaska Railroad crews offloaded about 350 cubic yards of snow in Anchorage on Thursday, bringing the snow-starved city what it needs to host the ceremonial start to the Iditarod this weekend.

Crews shipped the snow overnight from the Fairbanks rail yard in Interior Alaska, 400 miles north of Anchorage.

"This is the equivalent of covering a football field with two-inches of snow," Alaska Railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan Jr. said.

The snow will be laid down overnight Friday along a 3-mile route starting downtown on Fourth Avenue, for Saturday's ceremonial start of the 44th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The normal route is 11 miles long, but above-freezing temperatures forced organizers to shorten the route to safely accommodate 85 teams with up to 16 dogs each.

Alaska Railroad is footing the small cost of bringing winter back, albeit briefly, to Anchorage.

"We are backhauling - using cars and an already scheduled train - so no special train or special equipment needed to be moved to bring in the snow," Sullivan said. "We had crew spend a few hours pulling the snow from the rail yard, transferring it into air dumps and into the cars we had stationed at the rail yard to send overnight to Anchorage."

The official start of the 1,000-mile sled dog race starts on March 6 in Willow Lake, two hours north of Anchorage. Teams lucky enough to finish will find themselves in Nome, on the Bering Sea coast.

Willow has been home to the starting line since 2002, when race officials, citing rapid urban growth and a warming climate, moved it from 46 miles north of Anchorage near the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla another 30 miles further north. But the move north hasn't always helped with more snow.

In 2003 and 2015, the starting line had to be moved to Fairbanks, since the annual snow accumulation that had always been taken for granted didn't materialize - and can no longer be counted on. This impacts not only the Iditarod, but tourism and recreation opportunities for businesses and residents, as sprint and short-distance races have had to be canceled or shortened in the last few years.

Lakes that traditionally freeze over - allowing snow machines and cars to cross - now remain open water, or what ice they have is so thin that many a driver has found themselves getting wet or come back to find their truck partially underwater.

Arctic sea ice has also reached a new record-low maximum, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado.

Contributing to the low ice measurements are areas all over the state that used to see temperatures of 50 degrees below zero but are now breaking records for higher temperatures and lower snowfall, according to the National Weather Service.

Bringing in snow by rail is not a plan that was just crafted this year as forecasters stared at weather data absent of even a snow flurry.

"It's actually been a three-year conversation," Sullivan said. "Ever since we have been experiencing low-snow winters it's been discussed. We started to do this a couple of times but in the end Anchorage had all the snow they needed until now."

Municipal road crews had thought they would be able to stretch out just enough of the snow they have been stockpiling throughout the winter to make it through all the events this year, too.

Initially, there was enough snow to accommodate the ceremonial start of the annual Iron Dog race - teams of snow machiners racing over parts of the Iditarod Trail to Nome and then over to Fairbanks - plus shortened versions of sprint-class sled dog races and events over the second weekend of the annual Fur Rendezvous winter festival and Iditarod ceremonial events.

But Mother Nature has not cooperated since. The earlier optimism of organizers was based on typical winter days of below-freezing temperatures. Instead, Anchorage has seen several days in a row of above-freezing and spring-like temperatures melting much of the remaining stockpile.

So the Alaska Railroad came to the rescue. Capturing some of the Alaskan pioneer spirit of pitching in when needed, Sullivan said, "We're happy to lend a hand. We're not an official race sponsor, we're just glad to help out."

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