This year marks the 100th occurrence of a special annual event in the central Alaska town of Nenana. About 50 miles southwest of Fairbanks, the Nenana Ice Classic is a contest to determine what time the ice on the adjacent Tanana River breaks up each spring.
In 1917, railroad engineers got together and wagered a combined $800 on when the ice on the river would break up. In the decades that have followed, the reach of the contest has gone global with anyone able to place a bet. Last year, the winners of the contest shared $330,330 in prize money. Impressive, because each guess only costs $2.50. To determine the precise time of breakup, a large tripod is placed in the ice and connected to a clock. Once the ice breaks, the tripod shifts, stopping the clock and determining a winner.
Because the ice breakup records go back to 1917, they also serve as a good climate indicator. During the contest’s history, the ice has broken as early as April 20 and as late as May 20, with an average breakup date of May 5. Of the 8 earliest ice breakups, 7 have come since 1990. Alaska just had its second-warmest winter on record, and its warmest January through March on record. This makes an early breakup date likely in 2016.
According to the Ice Classic, it took longer than normal for the river to freeze this winter and temperatures have not been colder than -20°F. While that is plenty cold to those in the Lower 48, Nenana usually has winters where the temperatures can drop to between -40°F and -55°F. While alarming, it is not surprising since the Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the Earth.
The rapidly warming Arctic is already having other impacts on Alaska. Structures and roads are starting to fail as the permafrost melts. New vegetation is expanding northward into the tundra, displacing native lichens and disrupting the food chain. The loss of coastal sea ice is contributing to erosion and coastal flooding. And higher temperatures increase wildfire risk. A Climate Central report, The Age of Alaskan Wildfires, found that the number of large wildfires in the Arctic region increased nearly tenfold in the 2000s compared to the 1950s and 60s.
As the climate continues to warm, the shift to earlier ice breakups on the Tanana River are more likely. By the way, it’s too late to get into the contest this year as entries closed on April 5.