Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script
photo of tripod and crowd

Fun Science: The annual raising of the tripod in Nenana, Alaska, is a fun event for people who bet on when the ice will break up on the Tanana River, marking the unofficial arrival of spring. For scientists, 83 years of winning guesses show the ice now breaks up earlier. (Courtesy Nenana Ice Classic.)

Gambling on Ice

INTRO: Scientists have at their disposal a variety of sophisticated tools they use to monitor the Arctic's changing climate. Satellites send detailed images of the north's changing vegetation, while submarines measure the thinning of sea ice, for example. If you're a scientist on a budget, perhaps the best data comes from gamblers who guess when the ice will go out each spring on Alaska's Tanana River. Doug Schneider has more in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.

STORY: The Nenana Ice Classic is an Alaska tradition that marks the arrival of spring. Residents of Nenana, a tiny town 50 miles south of Fairbanks, erect a large wooden tripod on the ice in the middle of the still-frozen Tanana River. People from all over the world buy tickets at $2 apiece to place bets on the exact minute the ice will break up, causing the tripod to tumble into the water and stop a clock. Last year, 18 winners walked away with a share of the $335,000 pot. It's a fun event for Alaskans who've endured a cold, dark winter.

tripod and melting river
Breakup: After a long, cold, dark winter in Alaska, three feet of river ice finally melts and begins to flow downstream on the Tanana River. (Courtesy Nenana Ice Classic.)

For Rafael Sagarin, the Nenana Ice Classic is a winning bet for science. Sagarin is a marine biologist at Stanford University. He's looked at the event's 83 years of winning times and noticed an interesting trend—that spring is coming earlier to the Arctic.

SAGARIN: "If you look at the whole record from 1917 to 2000, what you see is that, on average, the date in which ice breaks up on this river has advanced by five and a half days. In other words, this sign of spring, the ice breakup on the river, is coming earlier than it used to at the beginning of the century."

The Nenana Ice Classic dates back to the spring of 1917, when railroad workers, bored from the long winter, set up a tripod in the middle of the frozen Tanana River. They took bets on when the tripod would fall through the melting ice. Eventually, the betting became a statewide event that now raises money for numerous organizations and local charities.

While fun for Alaskans, Sagarin says the event offers scientists a unique perspective on Arctic climate change. He also says it shows you don't have to be a scientist to help study the environment.

SAGARIN: "Careful observations of nature taken by anyone are proving to be indispensable to the study of climate change and to other ecological studies. I hope that this study will stimulate more people to enjoy and take part in studies of natural history, whether it's looking at birds or frogs in their backyard or looking at ice and recording what they see."

Ice Classic clock
Official Clock: A wire running from the tripod on the river to a clock on shore breaks when the ice goes out, stopping the clock and marking the exact time of breakup. (Courtesy Nenana Ice Classic.)

Organizers of the Nenana Ice Classic say the ice usually breaks up sometime in late April or early May. Last year, the ice officially gave way on May 8. Given this year's relatively mild winter, it might pay to consider the trend discovered by Sagarin before making your guess. Tickets for this year's Ice Classic went on sale February first through vendors across the state and on the Nenana Ice Classic Web site.

OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.

Audio version and related Web sites (sidebar at top right)
Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:

Raphael David Sagarin
Stanford University
Hopkins Marine Station
Pacific Grove, CA 93955-5020
Phone: 831-655-6251

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is

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