April 6, 2023Print | PDF
After 10 years of tracking skating conditions on outdoor rinks with help from a network of citizen scientists across North America, RinkWatch project co-founder Robert McLeman describes this past winter as “the strangest one yet.”
“From the Great Lakes eastward, 2023 had the mildest January we’ve seen over the past decade. It was so mild, the Rideau Canal skateway never opened for the first time in its history,” says McLeman, a professor of Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. “A lot of people abandoned their rinks by early February, figuring they would not get any skating this winter. But the few who kept trying ended up with some great late-season skating, as March turned out to be unusually cold.”
McLeman notes that this winter was “a better one” for rink builders on the Canadian Prairies and the northern U.S. Great Plains, because winters there are inherently colder and less variable than in the east.
Spearheaded by McLeman and a team of student researchers, they have collected reports of daily skating conditions for more than 1,500 outdoor skating rinks since 2013, submitted by citizen scientists through the project website. The researchers use the data to monitor the effects of winter weather conditions on outdoor skating rinks and study the long-term impacts of climate change. By comparing daily skating conditions with weather station data, the researchers have identified critical temperature thresholds for building and maintaining an outdoor rink.
“We want to see average daily temperatures continuously colder than -5 degrees Celsius,” says McLeman.
In turn, this has allowed the RinkWatch team to publish studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals that re-create historical skating conditions for past decades and project the future implications of climate change for outdoor skating.
“The data show that the number of winter days cold enough to build a rink is already in decline in Toronto and the lower Great Lakes region more generally. If greenhouse gas emissions continue growing at current rates, average winter temperatures will be too mild most winters to build an outdoor skating rink in most of eastern North America by mid-century, says McLeman.
To launch its second decade, the researchers have provided their most reliable participants — called “The Sentinels” — with devices that record rinkside temperature conditions on an hourly basis and transmit these electronically to the RinkWatch team. In return, the Sentinels receive detailed annual reports on the performance of their rinks.
“RinkWatch only works because of the dedication of our participants, and we are continually looking for ways to keep them engaged,” says McLeman.
Reflecting on lessons learned beyond the impacts of warmer temperatures on ice conditions, McLeman says: “We’ve come to appreciate the social and cultural importance of outdoor skating for Canadians and for people living in the northern U.S. Rinks are important community meeting places in the coldest, darkest months of the year. It’s where kids learn to skate and start to dream of being the next Wayne Gretzky or Hayley Wickenheiser. If we lose the ability to skate outdoors because of climate change — and we will, if we don’t get greenhouse gas emissions under control — life will go on, but we will lose something unique and special. And that would be a real shame.”
Over the past decade, RinkWatch has been profiled on local and national media outlets across North America, including Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, the New York Times, CBC TV’s The National, The Hockey News and The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. There’s no question in McLeman’s mind why RinkWatch received more media attention this year than in the past.
“It’s an easy story to tell. We sense that winters are getting milder, and we can see the evidence in our backyards and neighbourhood rinks,” says McLeman. “This past winter, especially with the Rideau Canal not opening, was a real wake-up call for anyone who hadn’t noticed previously.”
Learn more about RinkWatch.