This story originally appeared on High Country News and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Mike Williams Jr. doesn’t remember when he started mushing, but once he was strong enough to handle the sled dogs, it became his passion. At first, he mushed after school, taking his father’s dogs on 3- and 4-mile trails near his home in Akiak, Alaska. He ran the Iditarod for the first time in 2010 and has competed seven times since.
The Iditarod is Alaska’s best-known sporting event. Sled dogs and their mushers travel the roughly thousand-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome each year in March to commemorate the 1925 serum run, when a relay of 20 dogsled teams delivered life-saving medication to Nome to halt a diphtheria outbreak. The route is only passable in winter, when the rivers and lakes have frozen over. But the trail has become trickier in the past two decades as the region has warmed, making trail conditions less reliable. The 51st annual running of the Iditarod starts 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 drop, but climate change isn’t helping. “Our ecosystem is under fire right now within the state of Alaska,” said Chas St. George, the chief operations officer of the Iditarod Trail Committee, the nonprofit that organizes what some call “The Last Great Race.” St. George started his role in 2016, and he says the race has had to adapt to unpredictable weather, which is creating new obstacles and potential safety hazards for mushers and their dogs. Rivers, creeks, and lakes on the route crosses aren’t freezing as reliably as they once did, and vegetation is growing in new places, obstructing the trail. Unseasonably warm storms can bring rain instead of snow, washing away the crucial sea ice in Norton Sound that mushers must cross toward the end of the race. The permafrost is thawing, destabilizing what was once solidly frozen ground, while summer wildfires have become more frequent, meaning charred trees can fall onto the trail.
Williams, the musher from Akiak, says that in the years since he began competing, he has noticed the changes to the landscape and how they’ve impacted the trail. He remembers one warm winter in 2014, when the trail was icy 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 broken sleds.
“That was a very tough year for training and racing, and running the Iditarod in those conditions for almost the whole race was very challenging,” he said. “And it was very humbling. I would say a lot of us were lucky to make it through that course without getting hurt, because some people did.”
In years past, organizers have had to alter or shorten the trail to accommodate the new hazards. In some recent years, there was not enough snow to start the race, so race officials had snow trucked in or brought by cargo trains from the north to patch up the bare ground at the starting line. In 2008, organizers permanently relocated the timed start to a place roughly 30 miles north of the original location, moving it from Wasilla to Willow in search of more stable conditions.
Organizers have also long worked with local communities to plan the race and maintain the trail, and they can see how the changing climate has affected everyone. Locals not only travel the trail to report back to organizers about conditions, they also use the trail to visit nearby villages by dogsled and snowmobile.
This year, inflation has also had an impact. For mushers, the price of meat and dog food has gone up, while skyrocketing fuel prices have made it harder for community members to travel along the Iditarod trail, meaning fewer eyes on the race course. “This year, on the southern route, we have not seen that many snow machines going up and down the river,” St. George said. “The price of gas has gone up so high that many people are opting not to travel back and forth to visit relatives or even for business.”
St. George said that race organizers will need to work with local communities to face the challenges brought by climate change. To that end, the Iditarod committee has been looking at state and federal grants that could help communities along the trail become “storm ready,” making use of a National Weather Service program that helps communities plan for extreme weather and water events. But for now, the committee is addressing these obstacles as they come. Each year brings new challenges. “We have to look at ways we can continue to actually have a trail, and oftentimes we do what’s been done here in Alaska for thousands of years—and that’s figure out a go-around,” St. George said.