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Nenana Ice Classic tripod goes down, setting record for earliest river breakup

The Nenana Ice Classic, an Alaska harbinger of spring, has ended on the earliest date in its 102 year history.

Ice on the Tanana River ice broke at 12:21 a.m. on Sunday, April 14, toppling the tripod into the river, according to ice classic organizer Cherrie Forness.

The previous record for earliest break up was April 20. The latest break up on record is May 20.

An early end to the quirky Alaska contest is another sign of what scientists have described a spring warm enough to “obliterate” records across Alaska, with melting or missing ice disrupting everything from river travel in Western Alaska to spring hunts on the Bering Sea.

March in particular set temperature records from Klawock in Southeast Alaska to Deadhorse on Alaska’s North Slope.

The Interior, too, has been balmy by Alaska standards this winter, said Forness.

“I think it only hit 40 below for a couple days, all winter,” she said.

The ice was thinner than usual to start with, Forness said.

When organizers took a first ice measurement on the river in January “it was only 16 inches deep,” she said. “It’s normally in the 30s.”

With a very warm March, people rushed to place bets for an early breakup, Forness said. Then, when the weather cooled down for a while, another wave of people purchased tickets on the other end of the spectrum, thinking the ice might hold out longer than predicted.

“It’s just been a crazy year for us,” she said.

Nenana Ice Classic contest participants buy $2.50 tickets and try to guess the date, hour and minute that the ice will go out on the river, dumping a tripod perched on it into the water and officially signaling spring break up season.

Ticket-buyers who guess the right time split a jackpot of ticket sales, which have reached into the $360,000 range, according to Forness.

The tradition dates back to 1917, when railroad surveyors working in the area balanced a tripod on the ice for fun, Forness said.

People had been watching and waiting for the tripod to fall for days. A small crowd gathered on the banks of the river to watch Friday as it became clear that the ice would soon give way.

“We saw channels opening up, river water coming through,” she said.

Forness said at least 300,000 ice classic tickets have been sold this year, less than some previous years.

It’s too early to tell who won, and how much is in the jackpot the winner or winners will claim. In a few years, just one person has guessed the exact winning day, hour and minute and claimed the entire jackpot .

Contest officials said winners wouldn’t be notified for a few weeks.

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