Will Alaska's Biggest Sled Dog Race Continue Without Snow?

Illustration for article titled Will Alaska's Biggest Sled Dog Race Continue Without Snow?

The Iditarod, a 900-mile sled dog race across Alaska, goes on no matter what the weather, which can range from whiteout blizzards to hazardously frosty temps. But what happens when the racers show up and the snows don't? This year, we found out.

Top image: Iditarod dogs 2009, in snowier times / Frank Kovalchek.

When the sled race was run this year, racers and organizers both immediately began noticing that something was missing — and that something was snow on the ground. Now we know just by how much the snow was missing, courtesy of this model NOAA put together.

Illustration for article titled Will Alaska's Biggest Sled Dog Race Continue Without Snow?

Image: Iditiarod snow map / NOAA.

As you can see, long stretches of both the southern route (slated for next year) and the northern route (which racers followed this year) have either no snow at all or just a light covering.

So, does the race go on even if the snows don't? Pretty amazingly, the sleds can go on over snowless terrain, and they can go pretty fast — so much so that this year's winner Dallas Seavey set a new record for speed. But, along with the increase in speed, the increase in danger to both racers, dogs, and even to the sleds themselves rises too.

There's also the possibility of pushing the route ever more northwards, a strategy that organizers adopted in 2003, when a similarly warm Alaskan winter threatened the race. The trouble, though, is that the race is not simply a sporting event, it's also a historical one.


The Iditarod travels along a historical trail that in Alaska's early years was the best and most reliable method of getting things in or out of the rugged terrain, whether they were bringing mail, medicine, food, or taking out gold and furs to sell.

The racers make the trek along this same route that those supplies once traveled, stopping at towns that have their own historical significance to the trail, before finishing in Anchorage. An Iditarod that didn't follow that route would be a very different race indeed.


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As for the historical significance of the trail, the trail specifically is one that reflects the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the "Great Race of Mercy", where 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs relayed diphtheria antitoxin 674 miles by dog sled across Alaska in five and a half days, saving the small city of Nome and the surrounding communities from an incipient epidemic that would likely have taken the lives of many children. Leonhard Seppala is a hero who risked his life in gale force winds that ultimately turned into a blizzard in an already unforgiving climate to help others.