As continental US faces frigid temps, Alaska sweats warming and unpredictable dog-sledding conditions

PHOTO: Musher Aliy Zirkle runs her team during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, March 3, 2018, in Anchorage, Alaska.PlayMichael Dinneen/AP, FILE
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While the Northeast and Midwest are experiencing record-breaking cold, dog sledding fans are struggling with warmer temperatures in Alaska.

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Jennifer Hawks of Willow, Alaska, is the media communications coordinator for the Joe Redington Sr. Knik 200 race. For mushers around the world, it's an important race, often used to qualify for the Iditarod or Yukon Quest.

Hawks lives in what she calls a "semi-remote area of Alaska," where she lives a "subsistence lifestyle."

She told ABC News' "Start Here" podcast on Thursday she has about a half a moose, a year's supply for her, hanging in her yard right now.

"Normally, when Alaska is acting like Alaska, I usually just hang the meat from a meat pole in my side yard all winter long," Hawks said. But this year, she said, the January air is too warm to keep raw meat -- and it's way too hot for mushing.

PHOTO: Jennifer Hawks of Willow, Alaska is normally able to store her meat for a year in her yard -- but a warming climate is changing that way of life for her. Courtesy of Jennifer Hawks
Jennifer Hawks of Willow, Alaska is normally able to store her meat for a year in her yard -- but a warming climate is changing that way of life for her.

She said it's the latest in a pattern of rising temperatures changing the Alaskan way of life.

The Knik 200 is "the first real big race of the season," Hawks said. Traditionally, it's the first weekend in January, and all conditions on the trail must be precisely right for the safety of the mushers and dogs.

"Not only do we need snow on the trail, we need the trail not to be ice -- because you don't want the dogs to cut their pads on the ice. You don't want them running too fast. And you also need to make sure that the thickness of the ice on the lakes is sufficient for all the teams," Hawks said.

That ice needs to bear the weight of about 40 racing teams -- up to 12 dogs per team, plus the musher, plus the weight of the sled.

"The trail will degrade over time, with each passing team," Hawks explained. These conditions are put in jeopardy when the temperatures rise above freezing.

PHOTO: Alaska musher Tom Schonbergers lead dogs trot along Fourth Avenue during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska, March 3, 2018. Michael Dinneen/AP, FILE
Alaska musher Tom Schonberger's lead dogs trot along Fourth Avenue during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska, March 3, 2018.

Hawks said the Knik and other races are desperately trying to keep up with the problems as they arise.

"We have routes, and we have alternate routes, we've moved the race this year -- we postponed the race until February," she said. "And then we realized there was already open water up to one of our checkpoints. It's just not safe."

With a warm stretch moving in, the Knik organizers have decided to cancel the race altogether.

"We knew, OK, this isn't going to work," she added. "It's already not safe. It's just going to get worse."

She saw the danger of the weather's effects earlier this winter when two snow mobile riders died on a major lake.

"They live there, and they fell through the ice," Hawks said. "It's a real threat."

Meanwhile, the continental U.S. is enduring extremely cold weather -- Chicago had a minus-52 windchill on Wednesday and more than a dozen people have died in connection to the frigid temps.

"Ironically, you know the folks in the lower 48 who are not prepared for these colder temperatures are actually experiencing much colder the weather than we are right now," Hawks said.

PHOTO: Emily Maxwell at the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Willow, Alaska, Mar. 4, 2018. Jay Christensen/IOS/AP, FILE
Emily Maxwell at the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Willow, Alaska, Mar. 4, 2018.

As for marquee races like the Iditarod, "I don't know what they're going to do this year," Hawks said. "They may not even know yet. The weather is just crazy from one day to the next. You don't know. We're about to enter into another cold spell again this week. So who knows what's going to happen now."

The Knik tracks "mushers from literally all over the world," she said. "And we have people coming from a long distance and it's very expensive for them to travel here for this race."

Hawks said the unpredictable conditions are "brutal" for teams because many rely on the Knik trails to give their dogs a test run or ease them into racing to prepare them for larger races like the Iditarod.

Climate change may permanently affect dog sledding, and many fans could struggle to accept that, she added.

"I don't think people really want to look at 'What is the future of sled dog mushing in Alaska?' because it's not only a lot of mushers' livelihoods, it's their passion," Hawks said. "They live and they breathe it."

This story was featured in the Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, episode of "Start Here."

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