Wagering on thin ice: The Nenana Ice Classic

March 31, 2022

For over a century, a special annual event in the central Alaska town of Nenana has engrossed—even obsessed—its population of 350-plus people every winter: The Nenana Ice Classic is a contest to determine on exactly what date, and at what time, the ice on the adjacent Tanana River breaks up each spring, reports Alaska Magazine.

It all started In 1917, when local railroad engineers got together and wagered a combined $800 on when the ice on the river would break up. In the decades that have followed, the reach of the contest has gone global, with anyone able to place a bet. Last year, the winners of the contest shared $233,591 in prize money. That’s truly impressive, because each guess costs the entrant only $2.50.

To determine the precise time of breakup, a large tripod is placed in the ice during the first weekend in March and connected to a clock. Once the ice breaks, the tripod shifts, stopping the clock and determining a winner, notes Climate Central.

Because the ice breakup records go back to 1917, they also serve as a good climate indicator. During the contest’s history, the ice has broken as early as April 20 and as late as May 20, with an average breakup date of May 5.

For some Alaskans, entering the Nenana Ice Classic is a science that involves measuring ice thickness, tracking weather events, and even factoring in the train schedule. For others, entering the classic is as simple as guessing a day and time and then hoping for good luck.

When the tripod moves 100 feet downriver, a tripwire stops the clock.

The association that organizes the ice classic is a nonprofit that donates proceeds from ticket sales to local organizations—among them, the public library, the food bank, and the Boy Scouts. The money not donated to charities is sent to whoever guessed the closest time to breakup.

People who live outside the state can enter by mailing money and a list of guesses to the ice classic office. All entries must be received by April 5.

Research contact: @AlaskaMagazine