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Environment

Too Much Ice In Anchorage

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Alaska is warming twice as fast as the global average. This year is expected to be the warmest on record in Anchorage. As Nat Herz of Alaska's Energy Desk reports, this is changing residents' winter way of life.

NAT HERZ, BYLINE: At Anchorage's Kincaid Park, high school teams have driven hours to compete at an annual cross-country ski race.

(CROSSTALK)

HERZ: It's a near-wilderness setting packed with moose and traversed by 30 miles of ski trails. But on this day, most of the snow has melted. Hundreds of racers take turns skiing around a mile-long loop of manmade snow that's surrounded by treacherous sheets of ice. Max Beiergrohslein is a senior who placed fourth. And he wasn't thrilled about racing on what he called a gerbil loop.

MAX BEIERGROHSLEIN: It's not the best, like, going to bed at night thinking, like, oh, there's not going to be, like, snow tomorrow.

HERZ: Beiergrohslein and the other racers warmed up not by skiing, but by jogging around a field next to the racecourse. This kind of a scene has become increasingly common over the past few years here. But Beiergrohslein says that more people signed up for his high school ski team this winter than he's ever seen.

BEIERGROHSLEIN: When it was first having bad snow years, a lot of people would, like, quit 'cause we would be running a lot. But now, people are just like - it's kind of all they know.

HERZ: Welcome to the new reality for Alaska's largest city, which is in the midst of redefining its relationship with winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL WHIRRING)

HERZ: Across town in the back of a shop called Skinny Raven Sports, John Clark is drilling a set of hardened screws into the soles of a pair of sneakers. It's a cheap way to get better traction on icy streets and trails.

JOHN CLARK: So we get them by the boxload - thousands of them.

HERZ: Out on the sales floor, for people willing to spend more, the store has a dozen models of shoes with built-in studs. Clark says the store once sold a few hundred pairs a year, but icy winters have helped drive up demand.

CLARK: We probably sell well over a thousand units of studded shoes a year, so it's an important part of our business.

HERZ: The changes have brought other adjustments to daily life in Anchorage. One elementary school principal has suggested that students wear helmets at recess to keep them safe on an icy playground. Anchorage's street maintenance department recently started using salt along with sand to help clear certain roads. And the city council just voted to shorten the season in which Anchorage drivers are allowed to use studded tires.

Alaska scientists are now researching how much of a change there's been in what are known as rain-on-snow events, which create ice. And then they'll use that data to predict what may happen in the future. But they already know that it's staying warmer later in the fall and taking longer for snow to build up, especially in the past five years. Brian Brettschneider is a local climatologist with the International Arctic Research Center.

BRIAN BRETTSCHNEIDER: I mean, my kids are now 12 and 14. And they talk about what it used to be like.

HERZ: Brettschneider is an avid winter hiker. And he says that he and other Anchorage residents relish their snowy winters.

BRETTSCHNEIDER: It's kind of a badge of honor that we experience this. We get through it. We endure it. But we also embrace it.

HERZ: If the warmer, icier trend continues, Brettschneider says, the city risks losing a core piece of its identity.

For NPR News, I'm Nat Herz in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARKTICA'S "MARIRI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.