Scientists find evidence of climate change in Alaskan lottery

Climate change scientists are looking to the Nenana Ice Classic, an 84 year old Alaskan competition to guess the date when the ice breaks up on the Tanana River, to identify trends in climate change, and have revealed that, on average, the melt now arrives 5.5 days earlier than when the contest began.

The lottery’s records provide convincing evidence of an earlier spring in the Northern Hemisphere, says biologist Raphael Sagarin from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, one of the project’s researchers, reports the Anchorage Daily News. “It almost precisely matches the general temperature trends for Arctic regions, where you have much more sophisticated climactic data,” said Sagarin. “It’s really intriguing that the ice melt record in Nenana really captures that subtle trend.”

The contest is so popular that it was written into state law in 1959, and is carried out following strict rules. A wooden tripod painted with black and white stripes is erected on the ice off Nenana and connected to a clock in a tower on shore. When the ice disintegrates or moves downriver, the tripod falls over, yanks the trip rope and stops the clock, resulting in a prize of up to $335,000 for those who have guessed the correct day, hour and minute.

“I was reading my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Alaska, and it had a small mention in it of the Nenana Ice Classic,” said Sagarin. “I immediately thought this might be a good record for looking at climate change in Alaska.”

However, the Nenana locals are not so convinced about the value of their lottery. “I’ve looked at the records myself, and it appears to me that it hasn’t really gotten any earlier,” said Classic manager Cherrie Forness. “We just kind of watch the winter and kind of guess.”

Most people “don’t look at the numbers and try to figure out when it’s going to break up,” said Julie Coghill, Webmaster of the lottery’s internet site. “They just use somebody’s birthday or a favourite number.”

Last spring, eight people shared the $308,000 jackpot for correctly guessing that the ice would break up at 1pm on 8 May. However, even Sagarin is uncertain of when the ice will break up in 2002. “Everyone asks me that,” he says. “I would say it’s sort of like the difference between predicting climate, which we can do, and predicting the weather, which we can’t.” Although, one might expect an astute scientist to say something like that, with over $300,000 at stake.

The study is published in the journal Science.

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