Outdoor Ice-Skating Rinks and Climate Change: Monitoring Local Impacts

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Spatial extent of outdoor ice skating rinks as reported to Rink Watch. Image used with permission, courtesy of Rink Watch, all rights reserved.

Where climate permits, playing on outdoor ice-skating rinks, frostbite and all, is remembered fondly by many a skater and hockey player including this author during his formative years in the Waterloo Region of Ontario (see red dot on map).

However, “The backyard rink is a tradition- one that future generations may not get to experience because of the damaging effects of climate change,” says Robert McLeman in a report by Jenna Wootton of Cottage Life. McLeman is an Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University and one of the profs running the Rink Watch project.

There is a lot of attention, for instance, being given to the impacts of climate change on polar bears and Arctic sea ice. But it hits home when your backyard ice rink melts prematurely or, worse yet, is abandoned as a feasible undertaking. Yes, losing outdoor skating rinks is a small casualty in the grand scheme of climate change, but for a Canadian, it’s cultural; few other ventures are more personal, in my case representing Gordie Howe on the neighborhood outdoor rink. Says professor McLeman in a RinkWatch forum post:

“When I was a kid and we were playing shinny or road hockey, we had to announce to the other kids which NHL player we were going to pretend to “be” when we started to play. It wasn’t like the Roch Carrier story, “The Sweater”, where all the kids pretended they were Rocket Richard, but the opposite: you couldn’t have 2 people pretending to be the same player. There were always arguments over who would get to be Borje Salming the 1st year he came over from Sweden to play for the Leafs (there were fewer arguments the following year).”

So, when is an outdoor ice rink feasible? Research has shown it takes several cold days to lay the initial ice on the rink. Consequently, the beginning of the season for outdoor ice rinks is the last of three days where the maximum temperature does not exceed -5 C.; above that temperature, forget it.

Climate Change Modeling: Previous Research

Previous research and climate-change modeling has shown Canadian winters are getting shorter because of changing climate conditions. Since 1950, winter temperatures in Canada have increased by more than 2.5 C – that’s three times the globally-averaged increase attributed to global warming caused by human activity.

Related to this, a study released in 2012 showed that the tradition of outdoor ice hockey in Canada is being threatened by these climate changes.

Rink Watch Logo with the skater and an outdoor ice rink. Image courtesy of Rink Watch.org

Rink Watch Logo with the skater and outdoor rinks. Image used with permission, courtesy of Rink Watch, all rights reserved.

Lawrence Mysak, co-author of the report and a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Que., commented that warmer winter temperatures caused by climate change is restricting the operation of ice rinks. “We were able to see that in general, the rinks were being opened later and later over the last… 50 years, and secondly that the length of the season has also shortened by… one or two, sometimes three weeks,” said Mysak in a 2012 CBC News report

The regions being hit the hardest are the Prairies, southeastern British Columbia and southern Ontario and Quebec. The Maritimes and northern parts of the country, however, have not seen significant changes. So what’s next?

Outdoor Rink Watch Program

From the Yukon to Newfoundland, and from Minnesota to Massachusetts, hundreds of North Americans have signed up their outdoor skating rinks as data sources for a Laurier research project on climate change,” announced Wilfrid Laurier University’s press release in 2013.

Birdwatchers have been conducting backyard bird counts for decades. Modeled on these efforts, the rink watch project has now garnered thousands of citizen scientists. “If you ask skaters, they’ll deliver,” reported the Montreal Gazette’s Monique Beaudin. “People register their outdoor rink on the website and then post updates showing when their rinks are ‘skateable’ or ‘non-skateable’.” At the time of this writing the total rink watchers reporting over 75 readings was 1209.

Rinkwatch.org now features forums where users can swap ice-making tips and share pictures of their rinks, with an introduction of mobile-phone apps planned.

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