Warm snow winters challenge some Alaskans

  • By NATHANIEL HERZ
  • Sunday, January 3, 2016 10:47pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — When the early-season snow melted this winter and left Anchorage’s ski trails covered in ice, Lauren Fritz, a professional cross-country skier, went out and bought cleats for her running shoes. Now, she and other members of Alaska Pacific University’s elite team are training on a short loop at Kincaid Park covered by a snowmaking system — the same snowmaking system that last winter, as Fritz put it, “saved our butts” when there was nowhere else to ski.

In Willow, the dog sledding mecca about 70 miles north of Anchorage, musher Lisbet Norris has been taking out smaller teams for the last two years so she can still control them without the deep snow pack needed to hold a hook. To the south, low snow conditions have forced the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to stay closed to snowmachiners for the last two winters — keeping out two-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, who relies on snowmachines to prepare the refuge trails for dog sledding.

Around southcentral Alaska, the last two winters have posed substantial challenges for those who rely on snow — and especially for the cross-country skiers, mushers and snowmachiners who train and race. On Dec. 24, the snow depth at the National Weather Service’s Anchorage office was just 2 inches — well below the historical average of 9 inches.

Climatologist Rich Thoman, who works for the National Weather Service, said that the last two winters are too short a period to attribute the low-snow conditions to climate change — the winter of 2011-2012, he noted, was Anchorage’s snowiest on record. But he also acknowledged that less snow for the city is consistent with a warming climate.

“It is always impossible to put a couple of years together and say, ‘OK, this is climate change,’” Thomas said. “If we get five of these, then we can start to talk about it.”

In interviews, several professional skiers, mushers, and snowmachiners said they’re staying focused on their sports rather than dwelling on the meteorological challenges they face.

“I’m a musher. I take what comes, one step at a time,” Mitch Seavey said. “The first time I ran the Iditarod, in 1982, it rained. It was warm. And the snow melted and I had to go train in Nenana. So I don’t know — I hate to extrapolate from the last two years as if it’s some sort of trend or as if it’s the end of the sport. Because I don’t see that.”

But others acknowledged that the last two years have given them doubts.

“If it keeps getting worse and worse, something’s going to give,” said Scott Faeo of Wasilla, whose team won the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race last year — about 300 miles of which traversed bare ground and ice. “Maybe it would be no more of that race, or they would have to restructure it somehow, to hit somewhere in Alaska where it is good.”

The last two winters have been especially bad for Anchorage’s snow sports practitioners.

The 2014-2015 snowfall at the weather service office was just 25 inches. That was the lowest total since at least 1985, one-third of the annual average, and only one of four years in the last three decades in which the weather service has recorded less than 50 inches of snow.

This year, 22 inches of snow have fallen in Anchorage. All but two inches have melted.

Thoman, the climatologist, noted that conditions for snow sports are much better not far from Anchorage, both south in Girdwood and Turnagain Pass and north in the Susitna Valley. At Alyeska Resort, Girdwood’s downhill ski area, “We are thrilled to have winter back,” said Roberta Carney, a program director for the Mighty Mites, a youth ski training group.

“We ended last year with white strips and brown in between,” she said. Now, she added, “It’s amazing. It’s like a completely different winter.”

For the skiers, mushers, and snowmachiners still facing less snow in Anchorage and elsewhere, there are actually some upsides, several said.

Lex Treinen, another Alaska Pacific University cross-country skier, said the short snowmaking loop at Kincaid Park makes it easier to rendezvous with teammates and friends. Seavey says he enjoys seeing different parts of Alaska on the training trips he’s made farther north, rather than the familiar terrain on the Kenai Peninsula where he lives. And Faeo, the snowmachiner, said last year’s “dangerous and crazy” Iron Dog course drew new attention from sponsors.

Norris, the Willow musher, said that attitude is an important part of her sport and there’s “no point complaining about what you can’t change.”

“We make do with what we have,” she said. “Dogs don’t care if they’re running on snow or on ground.”

At the same time, Norris acknowledged that long-term trends seem to be posing challenges. The Knik area, she said, used to be a “fantastic place to run dogs,” but hasn’t been for more than a decade. This year’s Knik 200 sled dog race was canceled; last year, the course was modified because of weather.

Fritz, the cross-country skier, competed on the Anchorage high school circuit a decade ago. Cancellations or postponements of races now appear to be much more frequent, she said. The changes, she added, aren’t just local: In Central Europe, ski races are getting moved or canceled, while organizers of the U.S. cross-country ski championships in Michigan are scrambling to pull off events in January.

“It’s hard to see that and know that maybe the next generation won’t have the opportunity to have a ski career like we’ve had,” Fritz said. “You almost see our sport dying out.”

Treinen, her teammate, remembers reading newspaper articles 10 years ago about warming temperatures and thinking, “What am I doing in this sport?” But he persisted and said he has no complaints about training on the short loop at Kincaid Park.

Maybe, he said, the international climate deal announced in Paris earlier this month could lead to some better snow “karma.”

Meanwhile, Seavey, whose son Dallas trains his dogs on a refrigerated treadmill, said he doesn’t follow the “line of logic” that long-term warming poses an existential threat to Alaska’s winters.

“Things have been getting warmer, so when does it go the other way? I don’t know,” he said. “We just take what comes, one day at a time, and take it in stride and enjoy all of it.”

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