The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a 1,000-mile trek through Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. Warm weather this year meant bare trails and trucked-in snow, while intense winds scrambled the best-laid plans of musher and dog.
During the Iditarod, dogs pull sleds as their mushers race for $50,000 and a new truck, with decreasing cash prizes for the 29 runners-up and a flat $1,049 for everyone after that who manages to finish the race. The race isn't over until the last team arrives or drops out.
The race follows the historic Iditarod trail that dog sleds used to deliver groceries, mail, people, gold, fur, and everything else that needed to get from one part of Alaska to another. To spread out the impact of an annual major racing event with accompanying press and volunteers, the race takes the northern route on even years (including 2014), and the southern route on odd years (last year and next year).
Route map of alternating annual routes. Image credit: Iditarod Dog Sled Race.
This year, 5 teams bailed before the started race even started. As of 8am local time this morning, of the 69 teams that started the race, 26 had crossed the finish line, 24 were still racing, and 19 had scratched somewhere along the trek. (Check the current race standings for updates.)
Well-marked trail of hard-packed snow in a spruce forest between Cripple and Ruby.
Why does a team scratch? Anything can go wrong from the dogs to the sleds to the people. Despite increasing external supervision, dogs still get hurt. Sleds can get overturned or blown off-trail. One musher came into a checkpoint this year with a bloodied face from hitting a tree. Even with mandatory layovers at checkpoints, it's a hard race. But this is the io9 Space subsite, not the io9 Animals subsite, so what does a dog sled trail race have to do with our planet?
Put simply, the weather this year was shit. Alaska wasn't cold enough for a dog sled race in March. In contrast to that nice snowy spruce forest on the northern part of the trail, earlier chunks of the trail were flat-out bare, with dogs pulling sleds across gravel and ice. A bare trail with lots of ice means high speeds and little traction. Even veteran teams were crashing or smashing their sleds.
Dust is not a problem I expect dog sled teams to encounter.
One musher flipped his sled, was knocked unconscious when his head slammed into a tree stump, then after he woke up, broke an ankle when trying to round up his team. No snow doesn't just make for weird photographs: it makes for downright treacherous terrain in an already dangerous race.
Anyone who made it through the first nasty slog had far nicer conditions for the northern route of the trail, going through snowy landscapes that are much closer to what I imagine a dog sled race should look like. But once hitting the lower section of trail, heading from Unalakleet down into Nome, the snow once again melts away to frozen icy patches on a bare trail.
Forget icy patches, that's a full-on frozen lake!
Why so warm? A dome of high pressure has been drawing warm air out of the Gulf of Alaska into its namesake-state, and directing cold, frigid air to the southeast. End result? Alaska is warmer than it needs to be for race-day, while the northeastern United States continues to be shocked by their ongoing cold weather.
Snow conditions were so bad, Nome has been stockpiling snow. They trucked it out to give the finish line a solid coating, ensuring that at least for the final moments, the dog sled race would be on a properly snowy trail.
After navigating the crap trail where even the white bits were mostly ice smashed up by trail-grooming machines, weather still played a role in reshuffling teams just before the finish line.
Jeff King had a comfortable lead on his competitors when a blizzard and its gusting winds tangled his sled in driftwood. After he got everything sorted out, his dogs refused to rejoin the race. He sat for two and a half hours with them, before catching a lift the last 4 miles to the final checkpoint in Safety, scratching from the race.
Every full tag on a flag is another 10mp of winds with temperatures recorded in the center bulb. When King scratched at 11:50pm on March 10th, the Safety weather station was recording steady winds of 15 mph. Image credit: Wunderground
That put Aliy Zirkle in the lead, but when she made it into Safety, she decided to hunker down and wait out the blizzard. By the time she had warmed up her frostbitten hands, Dallas Seavey had reached Safety, checked in, then kept on going. She took her team out to try to overtake him, but arrived two minutes after Seavey won the race.
This year's winning musher, Dallas Seavey, won not only the truck and cash, but also kisses from his sled dogs. The ridiculously slippery conditions meant that he also set a new record-breaking pace, completing the race in eight days, 13 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds.
This isn't the first year of warm conditions. In 2003, the race was moved north to Fairbanks because of deteriorating conditions. Even if the race route stays the same in future years, strategies like Seavey, who built his team for rough, difficult terrain instead of for speed, are going to get more common. I have never followed the Iditarod race before this year, but I've already marked my calendar for 2015 to see what challenges the southern route brings when paired with the possibility of another warm winter.
All photographs courtesy of AP Photo/The Anchorage Daily News, Bob Hallinen. Read more about the insane weather conditions in an interview with meteorologist/musher Monica Zappa.