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Iditarod 2016: Lackluster winter forces organizers to haul in snow for annual sled dog race

Beginning on Saturday, March 5, 86 teams of mushers and their dogs will embark on a nearly 1,000-mile trek across Alaska, scaling mountains, riding over frozen rivers and hurtling through dense forests as part of the 44th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

As is customary, the race's ceremonial start will take place in Anchorage before relocating about 50 miles north to Willow where the race will restart on Sunday at 2 p.m. local time.

It will be mostly cloudy on Saturday in Anchorage with a bit of snow perhaps mixed with sleet, said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jason Nicholls.

On Sunday, it will be cloudy with snow showers possible in Willow, he said.

Temperatures in Anchorage will top out in the upper 20s F, while temperatures will peak around 30 F in Willow. Those highs are right around normal for this time of year in both cities.

In 2015, the restart was moved to Fairbanks for only the second time in the event's history as a result of poor conditions along the Alaskan Range. This year, despite another mild winter, race officials are optimistic about the state of the trail.

"As is the case any year, we have some work to do to prepare the trail for the upcoming race," Race Director Mark Nordman said in a statement. "That being said, we have much better snow conditions in the Alaska Range and beyond and we expect to have a good race trail for this year's competitors."

The municipality of Anchorage's street maintenance department has been stockpiling whatever snow has fallen since November in order to hold the cermenional start, race officials said.

Additionally, the Alaska Dispatch News reported on Monday, a train, with seven cars filled with snow, is arriving from Fairbanks to help the event begin on time. The course that runs through downtown Anchorage may also have to be shortened from its 11-mile length.

Since receiving nearly 14 inches of snow in November, Anchorage has received only 7.9 inches of snow since Dec. 1. A normal seasonal total through March 1 is around 60 inches. Across the state, at the finish line in Nome, only 24 inches have fallen since Dec. 1, giving the city just over 42 inches for the season. A normal seasonal total through March 1 is 56.7 inches.

Despite the below-normal snowfall, conditions are a "definite improvement" over the past couple of years, Nordman told AccuWeather. Although, since the Yukon River did not freeze over safely, they did add 9 miles to the course by staying on land from the checkpoints of Golena to Nulato.

"We're doing alright with snow pretty much everywhere," Nordman said.

The predominate pattern this winter, much like the past couple of winters, has featured a persistent ridge of high pressure over Alaska and western Canada, according to Nicholls.

"This is likely a result of the much warmer-than-normal waters over the Gulf of Alaska and the northwest Pacific Ocean," Nicholls said.

Areas of low snow and dirt are common obstacles on the trail every year. However, this typically doesn't impact the racing ability of the dogs and the musher is often the weak link because the dogs are trained so well, according to Nordman.

"You know it's funny, these dogs are so incredible and so adaptable too, if anything, the less snow the faster they go," said Nordman, who has competed five times in Iditarod. "They have no problems with it."

A team of nearly 50 veterinarians keeps a watchful eye on the condition of the dogs throughout the race at every checkpoint.

"[The veterinarians] are just there to help [the mushers] take care of the dogs on the way to Nome," Nordman said.

Prior to competing in last year's Iditarod, dog musher Matt Failor told AccuWeather that the course conditions in 2014 were the roughest he had ever seen. He described the challenge of riding down a mountain with no snow cover while manuevering a 35-pound sled pulled by 16 dogs.

"It's a harrowing ride for the musher, but a fun ride for the dogs because they can go as fast as they want to go," Failor said.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.