Climate change affects legendary Birkebeiner race

February 28, 2011

On Feb. 26, thousands of skiers gathered for the legendary American Birkebeiner, also known as the Birkie—North America's largest, most prestigious cross-country ski race held annually in northwestern Wisconsin's Sawyer County.

In honor of the annual event we share this video about the Birkebeiner tradition, produced by Finn Ryan for Wisconsin's Educational Communications Board. The video is part of Climate Wisconsin: Stories from a State of Change, a 12-part series to support teaching and learning about climate change in Wisconsin. The videos highlight expected climate change impacts in a diversity of realms ranging from public health to farming and from recreational fishing to Great Lakes shipping.

All of the Climate Wisconsin stories are supported by research in collaboration with the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), a program of the Nelson Institute and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the project background essays and teaching tips were developed in collaboration with the Nelson Institute and the Center for Biology Education at UW-Madison.

WICCI researchers are examining past climate data and future climate projections to provide a better understanding of how climate change is impacting the Birkebeiner events, which contribute millions of dollars annually to the local economy and are embraced by the community.

Since the first Birkie in 1973, the race has been shortened six times and cancelled once due to weather-related conditions, with four of these adaptations and one cancellation happening since 1990. In the past 60 years, the average winter temperature has increased more than 3°F in the Sawyer County area.

With weather being the primary factor determining the success of the Birkie, researchers and event organizers are focused on what future adaptations will be needed as anticipated climate change-related challenges—warmer winters with warmer nights and less snow—hinder race conditions.

"It is so much a way of life; right now it's almost unthinkable. But if we did lose this in a couple decades, the loss would be horrendous," says John Kotar, one of the Birkie founders.