This story originally was watching News from the Highlands and is part of climate desk Cooperation.
Mike Williams Jr. can’t remember when he started mushing, but once he was strong enough to handle the sled dogs, it became his passion. At first he slouched after school and took 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 since competed seven times.
The Iditarod is Alaska’s premier sporting event. Sled dogs and their mushers make the thousand-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome each March to commemorate the 1925 serum run, when a squadron of 20 dog sled teams delivered life-saving drugs to Nome to stop an outbreak of diphtheria. The route is only navigable in winter when the rivers and lakes are frozen. But the trail has gotten more difficult over the past two decades as the region has warmed, making trail conditions less reliable. The 51st edition of the Iditarod starts on March 4th, but this year there are fewer teams than usual. Previously there were as many as 85 teams, now there are only 33 – the lowest participation in the history of the race.
There are many reasons for this decline, but climate change isn’t helping. “Our ecosystem in the state of Alaska is under attack right now,” said Chas St. George, chief operations officer of the Iditarod Trail Committee, the nonprofit organization that organizes what some are calling “The Last Great Race.” St. George began his role in 2016 and he says the race has had to adapt to unpredictable weather that creates new obstacles and potential safety hazards for mushers and their dogs. Rivers, streams, and lakes at the crossroads no longer freeze over as reliably as they used to, and vegetation is growing in new spots to block the path. Unusually warm storms can bring rain instead of snow and wash away crucial sea ice in Norton Sound, which the mushers will have to cross towards the end of the race. Permafrost is thawing, destabilizing the once-frozen ground, while summer wildfires have become more common, meaning charred trees can fall in the path.
Williams, Akiak’s musher, says that over the years since he started competing, he’s noticed the changes in the landscape and how it affects the trail. He recalls a 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 the mushers ended up suffering sprained ankles, bruises and broken sleds.
“It’s been a very tough year for training and racing and it was very challenging to ride the Iditarod in these conditions for most of the race,” he said. “And it was very humbling. I would say a lot of us were lucky to come through that course without injury because some people did.