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How backyard rinks can change the world (Ashley Hutcheson for The Globe and Mail)

How backyard rinks can change the world

(Ashley Hutcheson for The Globe and Mail)

LAWRENCE, ROBERTSON and McLEMAN

How backyard rinks can change the world Add to ...

Skating on an outdoor rink is the most natural expression of Canadianness. The sound of blades, the frozen toes, throwing in sticks to pick sides for shinny, flooding the backyard in bone-shattering cold after the kids are in bed: These traditions helped make us what we are.

Environmental scientists now tell us that outdoor skating is under threat. A small army has come forward to defend it; they’re called RinkWatchers, and they’re at the forefront of what we hope will be a new golden age of citizen science in North America.

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It isn’t news to anyone that the Earth is warming, that sea levels are slowly rising, that snow and ice are receding worldwide. We know these things are happening and grudgingly allow that people are to blame, but most of us don’t actually see them happening. The media dutifully report scientists’ warnings about shrinking glaciers, while companies sell us pop that will help save polar bears. We hear and understand the message but make no personal connection with it, living as we do in comfortable homes in places where glaciers and polar bears are, thankfully, absent.

When presented with evidence of environmental change, people often ask, legitimately, “Okay, but how does this affect me?” Scientists must answer this question. And once people do see how they’re affected, they then need opportunities to express themselves and interact with other like-minded people. Only then is collective action to address the challenge likely to occur. A key way of achieving this is through citizen science.

North America’s bird watchers have shown for decades through Christmas bird counts that engaged citizens can gather scientifically reliable data. Britain’s recent Open Air Laboratories project spawned 25,000 projects involving half a million citizen scientists, documenting everything from roadside trees to backyard insects. We need a similar explosion in citizen science across Canada, and soon.

Environmental change is speeding up, but government investment in environmental science and monitoring is slowing down. Successful adaptation to an environmentally uncertain future requires all of us to be systematically observing, reporting and analyzing the changes around us. Where better to start than our outdoor rinks?

On Jan. 8, we launched RinkWatch.org with a press release, good intentions and a budget of zero. The premise is simple: If you maintain a backyard or neighbourhood rink, we ask you to pin its location on our online map, then visit the site regularly to record the days on which the rink was solid enough to skate.

Two days after we launched, an enthusiastic article in a Montreal paper and an interview on a Toronto morning show brought so many visitors to the website, the server crashed. By the end of January, more than 700 rinks had been registered by RinkWatchers from Yukon to Newfoundland, and from Minnesota to Massachusetts.

Early users of the website began asking for additional features. Some wanted to enter historical data for their rinks dating back many years. Others wanted a user forum to connect with other RinkWatchers and swap stories, photos and tips on how to improve their rinks. We fulfilled these requests with the help of five enthusiastic undergrad volunteers, and the number of RinkWatchers continues to grow.

Our aims in creating RinkWatch are threefold. First, we seek enough regular users that, after a few years, we can start tracking trends in winter weather conditions. Yes, this type of data is available from weather stations, but weather stations are few and far between, and rink data provide complementary information at very local scales.

Second, we want to see whether this methodology can generate scientifically reliable data. Third, we see RinkWatch as a way to connect families with environmental research through something they already love doing. They may not be able to help scientists collect data about polar bears, but they can certainly report data about rinks.

The enthusiasm for RinkWatch shows there’s a fourth opportunity: to start a new era of citizen science. How many times have you read in this paper that Canadian kids are falling behind in math and science, that we aren’t innovators, that we fail to grasp the magnitude of the challenges we face this century? It’s time to look past the doom and gloom and do something about it.

In our daily lives, we observe many things that, were the observations pooled, would be valuable scientific resources for understanding the environment. Skating rinks are just one of many. A smartphone is a powerful data collection, analysis and communication device that makes every person carrying one a potential citizen scientist.

We literally carry in our pockets and purses the power to tackle the world’s environmental problems. The challenge for Canada’s scientists and government policy-makers is to provide the opportunities to make it happen. The challenge for you, the reader, is to join us. After you’re done flooding the rink, of course.

Haydn Lawrence, Colin Robertson and Robert McLeman are geographers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

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