By now, we’re all familiar with the doom and gloom implications of global climate change, as the increasingly shaky weather starts to become the norm. But it’s not just melting glaciers and vanishing ice caps that have become collateral damage to a heating planet; the humble outdoor ice rink, that classic feature of Canada’s winters, might be going the same way too.
That’s certainly a risk, according to Robert McLeman, an associate professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. McLeman is the co-founder of the citizen science research project, RinkWatch, a website database that encourages individuals to report the locations and conditions of their outdoor rinks.
“When we first initiated it, what we wanted to think about is how can we make a connection to the general public in terms of the impacts of climate change and how environmental science is important to people?” explained McLeman about the project.
“And we thought, well people in Canada are often very interested in the weather and in backyard skating and hockey and things like that.”
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The result was RinkWatch.org, which at its peak had over a thousand participants. On a regular basis, the citizen scientists pinned the location of their rinks on a map and provided updates RinkWatch on the skatability of their ice rinks.
With the data they collected over several years, McLeman and his team were able to connect the condition of ice rinks in people’s backyards to the latest climate models, in a study published in a scientific journal. And their findings, for winter wonderland enthusiasts and outdoor skaters, were discouraging.
“What we were able to show is that, for example, here in southwestern Ontario, we’re probably going to see the skating season shrink by about 30 to 40 per cent over, say, the next three decades, four decades at most,” he says.
So for a place like Elmira, he says, right now people have a good six to eight week window of ideal weather each winter to build their outdoor rinks. But 30 years from now, that window is likely to shrink down to maybe four to six weeks.
“And at that point it gets to be, ‘well my rink in an average year is only going to be skateable for say four weeks, am I even going to bother building it because it’s an awful lot of work to just get it going for a few weeks.’ So that’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen in the future,” said McLeman.
Even worse, not only is that window going to get smaller, but the increasingly erratic weather of the future means people are more likely to see sudden freeze-thaws, like the region has been experiencing this past month.
“We got off to a great start this winter. It was nice and cold there in the second half of December, but this thaw doesn’t help things at all,” he said of January’s weather.
“These sudden thaws like what we’re [having] right now where it goes up to 7 degrees, it’s just awful. Because essentially what happens is you lose the surface of your rink, and when it re-freezes really quickly, you typically don’t get a good quality surface on top of it, so you have to go back and start flooding again to try to repair it.”
While it’s tempting to blame CO2 emissions in the earth’s atmosphere for this year’s lukewarm winter, that that wouldn’t be entirely correct, McLeman explains. Climate change generally refers to global trends and not individual weather phenomenon. This winter is also influenced by La Niña, when below average sea-temperatures in the Pacific cause wild oscillations in the weather.
However, it would be correct to say that, with climate change becoming a greater issue, we’re bound to see more of this variability in the weather in the future. Which means worse conditions of for outdoor skating.
“So yes. I hate to say it, it sounds very pessimistic, but frankly if you’re a skating enthusiast, enjoy it now while it lasts,” he said.
For the Allison family of Elmira, seeing the outdoor ice rink season disappear would be a shame. The couple has been flooding their own outdoor rink every winter for the past several years, and their annual Winterfest party, which includes games of curling, food and drinks and a bonfire, has been a hit in the neighbourhood.
They say it wasn’t the easiest to get their rink ready for the Winterfest, which was held January 13, but add that it was well worth the effort.
“Well the simple answer’s is because it’s fun,” said Christa Allison at the party, of their hard work.
“Everybody has a good time … [and] everybody likes the old-fashioned rink thing. Not a lot of people do it,” added her husband, Chris.
The pair has been building their ice rink for years, but agreed that climate change had made it more difficult to maintain in recent years.
“Yes, I would probably think it is. Like definitely this year it was really great and then we get the rain and, you know, fighting to get it back for this. So, yes, it’s definitely something that’s harder to keep,” said Chris Allison.