Every spring, the Alaskan village of Nenana (population 500) hosts the Nenana Ice Classic - a popular event that awards cash prizes to those lucky enough to guess when the annual ice breakup will occur on the nearby Tanana River. Winners must predict the exact minute that a specially constructed wooden tripod will crash through the icy surface.
Hundreds of thousands of people pay $2 a ticket to enter the contest. This year`s jackpot of $308,000 was divided among 18 winners who accurately predicted that the tripod would fall through the ice on Tuesday, May 8, at exactly 1 p.m.
For many Alaskans, the Ice Classic signifies the long-awaited arrival of spring. But for Stanford scientist Raphael Sagarin, the event is more than symbolic.
"What began as a wintertime diversion for railroad engineers has given us an unusual 84-year data set on the timing of river ice breakup," says Sagarin, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford`s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif.
Writing in the Oct. 26 issue of Science, Sagarin and Fiorenza Micheli, assistant professor of biological sciences, explain how the Ice Classic and other historical records can serve as valuable tools for researchers studying global warming.
"Because scientists weren`t thinking about climate change 80 or 90 years ago, it`s really important that people kept these data," notes Sagarin, who has a keen interest in phenology - a branch of science that looks at the annual timing of natural events, such as bird migrations.
"Phenology used to be dismissed as a hobby of eccentric British naturalists, some of whom have family records dating back to the 1750s of when the first leaf appeared on a particular tree in spring," Sagarin says.
Contact: Mark Shwartz