Lack of Snow Drives Iditarod North
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For the first time in its history, the route of the famous Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska has been driven over 200 miles northward due to lack of snow. Unusually warm and rainy conditions for late winter have melted snow cover and thawed out numerous frozen rivers along the southern slopes of the Alaska Range Mountains, usually the first major hurdle of the 1,000+-mile adventure.

The race usually begins in Anchorage, on the northeast shore of Cook Inlet (bottom left) on the south-central Alaskan coast and follows a northwestward trail across tundra braided with frozen rivers before climbing into the Alaska Range Mountains. The trail crests the ridgeline at Rainy Pass, less than 100 miles southeast of Mt. McKinley (Denali), whose towering summit casts a pointed, blue shadow just right of image center. This true-color Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on February 16, 2003, shows the bare terrain surrounding Anchorage.

The participants, called mushers, would have had to cross the virtually snow free-terrain and pass over rivers whose normal layer of winter ice was melting, slushy, or in some cases, absent. Bowing to nature’s early spring, race organizers decided to have the ceremonial start of the race in Anchorage as usual, but to begin the actual trek in Fairbanks (located in the top right quadrant, at the second “hump” in the river flowing in from the east). The new stretch of trail will follow the Chena River westward out of Fairbanks to the Tanana River and beyond to the Yukon River (flowing in from top center). The trail traverses central Alaska and dips southward with the Yukon, before veering northward once again and hugging the coast of the Norton Sound as it approaches the finish line in Nome, at the shores of the Bering Sea.

The Iditarod commemorates the days when dogsled was the only means of travel across the great, frozen expanse of Alaska. Supplies and mail went into the Alaskan interior via the Iditarod Trail. Perhaps the most memorable run was in 1925 when a series of mushers traveled virtually non-stop for a week to deliver anti-toxin serum to Nome to combat a devastating diphtheria epidemic that threatened to kill most of the town. This year’s rerouting of the race actually covers most of the terrain of that historic 1925 serum run.

The high-resolution image provided above is 500 meters per pixel. The MODIS Rapid Response System provides this image at MODIS’ maximum spatial resolution of 250 meters. This image is a combination of morning observations from the Terra satellite and afternoon observations from the Aqua satellite.

Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

Lack of Snow Drives Iditarod North

February 19, 2003
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