Dog racing & climate change - uncomfortable bed fellows.

This weekend is the final-final event of the dog racing season - the Northern Vic Sled Dog Club are holding their end of season finale. We can't make it, but we're sending lots of good wishes to friends that are there. Of course, so late in the season, the weather will mitigate a lot of opportunities for racing, but that's something we've become accustomed to this year.

This season I doubt you could find anyone amongst the dog sledding community who doubted that our climate is changing. Firstly, the northern season was marked by a highly unusual Iditarod, and then the summer season has included very few races that haven't had a heat cancelled due to heat.

For the non- Sleddog community, I guess the question is why is the heat so important? Obviously in the northern hemisphere, the racing season relies on snow, but in the summer hemisphere, where most of the racing is dry-land based, it's still important to keep cool temperatures. Most of the dog breeds used in sled dog racing are arctic breeds, with heavy coats and lots of insulation. The lighter coated dogs also need cool temperatures because they can't sweat, and when they run hard, they run flat out and get very over heated. No racing unless the temperature and humidity are under an effective 15 degrees Celsius. 

So, what happened this year? Firstly the Iditarod - can you imagine Alaska in the first weeks of February without snow? One of the southern sections was so poor that there were multiple mushers who crashed on icy slopes. Without snow to hold an edge, a brake or snow hook, there was no way to keep themselves from crashing on the steep winding hills. The dogs loved it, but the mushers who finished that section with concussions, broken bones and dislocated joints, didn't.

The snow season in Australia had a late start, but by the start of August the cover was excellent for the Falls Creek race. A sudden wet warm spell put the Dinner Plain race, only a week later, in jeopardy. But Australia had always had a short, dodgy snow season, so it's not totally unexpected.

In the dry land season this year, I attended seven races over four months. Only one of those races included the full number of planned heats. Mostly, it was the evening heats that were lost. But it was consistently too warm or too humid, so only one heat could be run. We got up very early to maximise the number of hours of cool weather for racing. Some of the bigger teams didn't get to run in daylight for months, to keep their dogs cool.


This sort of pattern raises some questions for dog sledding. Should we be changing the way we run our races to fit in with our unpredictable climate? Should we shift our season later to take advantage of the chilly spring weather? Should we consider racing even earlier in the morning, as the WA community does? Should we be petitioning the Australian government to take more action on climate change? 

One thing we can't do is express surprise when next year proves unpredictable too. Lets just hope it's an unusually cold winter, rather than another unusually warm one.