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Warmer Temperatures Complicate Alaska's Iditarod

Date: 03-Mar-06
Country: USA
Author: Yereth Rosen

Sparse snow at the southern end of the course has moved the grueling 1,100-mile (1,770-km) race from its traditional route. This year it will start in Willow, a small community 30 miles (48 km) north of Wasilla, where it usually begins.

Warm and windy weather has scraped Wasilla clear of snow, making sled-dog racing there impossible, race executive director Stan Hooley said.

"If there's anything on the ground, it's ice and very little snow," he said.

The race's opening ceremony will take place on Saturday, with the timed competition starting on Sunday. Mushers will start arriving in Nome about nine days later.

Unusual weather has prompted repeated changes in recent years to the route of the race, which commemorates the delivery of life-saving diphtheria serum in 1925 to the stricken Bering Sea city of Nome.

This year, alternating bitter cold and spring-like thaws turned trails to mud, slush and ice. The 2006 event will still end in Nome, 102 miles (164 km) south of the Arctic Circle.

Some scientists point to this as a sign of global warming, especially in Alaska and the rest of the Arctic, where the impact of rising temperatures can be amplified.

"The smallest temperature changes have a magnified effect in the Arctic," said Larry Merculieff, a longtime Aleut leader and deputy director of the nonprofit Alaska Native Science Commission. "The Arctic as a whole is feeling more of the effects, and Alaska definitely."

Climate scientists who wrote the eight-nation Arctic Climate Impact Assessment said winter temperatures in Alaska have risen nearly 8 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees C) over the past six decades.

'SOMETHING'S GOING ON'

Four-time winner Martin Buser, one of five past champions entered in this year's race, was among those who spent much of the winter shuttling dogs around in search of proper training conditions.

Buser noted that it has been more than a decade since the Iditarod had severe cold and stormy weather.

"Certainly, something's going on," he said.

Race Marshal Mark Nordman said meltdowns were also occurring in the usually colder, northern parts of the route. Temperatures had climbed above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10.00C) in Kaltag, a tiny village and race checkpoint on the normally frozen Yukon River.

Luckily for Iditarod organizers, temperatures around Alaska have dipped over the past week, and new snow has restored trail conditions somewhat.

The alternate route is hurting some businesses.

The Iditarod has been the inspiration for a huge party at the Knik Bar, at the last stop before the traditional race route enters the roadless wilderness, but the race no longer passes through Knik.

"Hundreds of people are here when it comes," said Darlene Donnelly, the bar's owner. "Of course, when it doesn't come, we don't have anybody."

Race pundits are speculating what role the weather may play in determining a winner.

Some Iditarod observers said mushers from the northern regions are more prepared due to better training conditions, while others argue that southern racers with thinner-furred, "warm-weather" dogs will do better in milder temperatures.

The handicappers have Buser, four-time champion Doug Swingley, three-time winner Jeff King, 2004 victor Mitch Seavey as some favorites among the 83 mushers and their dogs to win the competition.

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