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Climate change science hits close to home

Chris and Christine Allison walked through the melting snow that covered the skating rink they build annually in the backyard of their Elmira home. A few years ago, January 9 would have been prime skating weather, but on this afternoon the temperature hovered near 10 degrees Celsius.

“Normally we’ve had ice before Christmas as long as it’s cold and you can get some snow,” said Chris Allison. “Other years we’ve been skating on it usually the first week of January.”

The Allisons’ rink – decked with hand-painted signs for local and international businesses – is normally home to the couple’s annual Winterfest party, and a recreation spot for their two daughters, but the family wonders if this season will be declared a washout.

For the second year running, Elmira residents Chris and Christine Allison find the temperatures are too warm to maintain their backyard skating rink. [will sloan / the observer]
For the second year running, Elmira residents Chris and Christine Allison find the temperatures are too warm to maintain their backyard skating rink. [will sloan / the observer]
“We didn’t get a rink last year either,” added Christine Allison.

The Allisons are not alone, and Robert McLeman, an associate professor of Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, has launched a website that offers an interactive explanation of just why the air is feeling so warm. Created in association with Laurier, RinkWatch.org asks Canadians with backyard rinks to monitor and report the conditions throughout the season. Co-founded with assistant professor Colin Robertson and student Haydn Lawrence, RinkWatch promises to be “where backyard skating meets environmental science.”

“When you talk about global warming, people think, ‘Oh, this is a big problem, what can I do about it? How does it affect me?’” said McLeman. “They have trouble connecting to it, and we thought this is a great way to connect people to the science.

“Backyard skating – what’s more Canadian than that?”

But how much of the current temperature is attributable to the fickle nature of weather?

“Back 50 or 100 years ago there was probably a winter like this one where it’s really mild, but the reality is that we seem to be getting more and more of these in clumps and patches that we never used to,” said McLeman.

“If you go back 100 years, winter was longer, and it was colder. I mean, 100 years ago, it wouldn’t be unusual for it to be minus-20, minus-30 in Woolwich in January. But now, if it happened this January, people would think the earth drifted away from the sun.”

McLeman has an example that should strike Elmira residents close to home. “I did some research on eastern Ontario, this was a couple years back, and we were looking at historical maple sugar production. What’s happening is that the sap runs about a week to ten days earlier than it did 50 years ago.

“And you know how it is with sugar: the sap runs during a particular time when the conditions are that it’s freezing at night and above zero in the daytime. And that window is moving earlier and earlier in the year, and the trees are responding to it by running earlier.”

Climate change remains a touchy subject, and McLeman hopes his project can help clear up misconceptions. “There’s this myth that scientists are still in some wild fencing match over whether climate change is real or not,” said McLeman. “To be honest, I have yet to meet a scientist who doesn’t think that it’s real. The debate is not whether it’s happening or not – it’s more like, how fast is it happening?”

Laurier’s statistics are similarly bleak. Since records were begun in 1948, the 2011-12 winter season was the third-warmest on record, and 2009-10 was the warmest.

At the Allisons’ rink, the topic of climate change is an issue worth pondering.

“I think it’s hard to ignore,” said Christine Allison. “I don’t know if I buy into it, but there’s got to be something to it, because we haven’t even been getting half the snow.”

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