Annual Competition to Guess When Alaskan River Will Thaw Ends on Earliest Date Since 1917

The Nenana Ice Classic Tripod, seen here in 2008, when the prize was $303,895 and wasn’t won until May 7.
Photo: Al Grillo (AP)

The Nenana Ice Classic, a betting match on when ice on Alaska’s Tanana River breaks up enough to tip a tripod linked to a clock, set a record this weekend by ending nearly a week earlier than ever recorded, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

The contest started in 1917 as a bet between railroad construction workers and is often seen as an indicator of when spring starts. The tripod tipped this year at 12:21 a.m. Alaska Standard Time on April 14, shattering the prior record of April 20 (which had only happened twice). The News-Miner wrote that the early win follows similarly record-setting warm temperatures throughout the state in February and March—with March 2019 being 3.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the previous record in 1965:

The ice on the Kuskokwim River went out Friday, the earliest date on record after record-high temperatures in February and March, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. Residents in the mostly roadless southwest region of Alaska rely on the river for transportation, but thin ice has plagued the region — four people have died after falling through the ice on the river this spring.

Thoman (@AlaskaWx) tweeted that March 2019 for Alaska statewide was by far the warmest of record, 3.7F warmer than in 1965, the previous warmest. Three of the past four years are among the 10 warmest.

“We’re not just eking past records,” International Arctic Research Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks climatologist Brian Brettschneider told the Anchorage Daily News earlier this month. “This is obliterating records.”

The winner of the classic is determined by whoever correctly guesses (or, failing that, is closest to) the exact minute the tripod breaks free of the ice and begins floating downriver. Tickets cost $2.50, while the prize is now in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2018, according to a brochure, the jackpot was $225,000.

Alaska is warming much faster than the rest of the world—about twice as fast, according to estimates.

In 2017, a weather station in Utqiagvik, Alaska (the northernmost town in the U.S., known as Barrow until it was renamed to its original Iñupiat name in 2016) recorded such unusually warm temperatures that a National Centers for Environmental Information computer program designed to help process weather data assumed it was malfunctioning and sent out an alert notice. In recent years, the state is thought to have perhaps reached a tipping point, with ice in the Bering Sea retreating during parts of the season it should be growing, the Chukchi Sea experiencing record lows in sea ice coverage, and heat waves becoming dramatically more common.

“When you warm the planet, now that air you’re bringing from lower latitudes is even warmer so you can have even more extreme warmth in the Arctic in winter,” Jennifer Kay, a University of Colorado researcher specializing in Arctic clouds, told Earther in early 2018.

Scientists monitoring ice in the Bering Sea this year were startled to hear reports of winter surge flooding in the town of Kotlik on Alaska’s northwest coast in February, taking it as an indication that warming in the region is happening even faster than previously thought. NPR reported that scientists believe “rapid, profound changes tied to high atmospheric temperatures, a direct result of climate change, may be reordering the region’s physical makeup.”

In mid-March, according to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, sea ice in the Arctic was the seventh lowest on record. Environmental news site Mongabay recently wrote that as of April 9, sea ice extent had fallen to “13.6 million square kilometers (5.3 million square miles) of ice cover, putting it firmly below any other year on record for the same time of year, and nearly two weeks ahead of previous early April records set in 2017 and 2018.”

[Fairbanks Daily News-Miner]

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