Robert McLeman is professor of Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and directs the RinkWatch project.
It’s the second week of January, and outdoor skating rinks across southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States are wading pools. Favourite skating ponds have only a skiff of dangerous ice. Kids on the Prairies are luckier, for rinks that opened in a bitter December remain skateable despite milder January temperatures.
The winter we are experiencing right now will be the norm in coming decades as a result of climate change. For parents in Southern Ontario and southern Quebec who build backyard rinks for your families and friends, enjoy it while it lasts. When your kids are your age, most winters won’t be cold enough to maintain an outdoor rink without artificial refrigeration.
Ten years ago this month, colleagues and I at Wilfrid Laurier University launched RinkWatch, a citizen science project that asks people with outdoor rinks in their backyards and neighbourhood parks to share details about daily skating conditions. We received reports from more than 1,600 rinks in the past decade. We use this data to identify critical temperature thresholds for building and maintaining a skating rink. This allows us to identify long-term historical trends in outdoor skating and to project future opportunities for making outdoor rinks in a changing climate.
When average daily temperatures are colder than -5 C, there is a high probability a backyard rink will be skateable. A succession of multiple days with temperatures at least this cold (ideally colder) is necessary to create a rink in the first place. As daily temperatures climb above -5, the risk of the surface layer melting rises. Even a few days of mild temperatures can badly damage a well-made rink.
Beginning in the 1990s, average January temperatures in Southern Ontario and the Northeastern U.S. reached a point where they now hover at or above that important -5 degree threshold. In years when temperatures are colder than average there is decent skating, as occurred during the two COVID-19 pandemic winters – a blessing, given that many indoor rinks were closed. But when January temperatures are even modestly warmer, as they were in two of the three years prior to the pandemic, the only reliably operational outdoor rinks are refrigerated ones.
January temperatures are also warming in Western North America, Northern Ontario and northern Quebec, but because climates in those areas start from a much colder baseline, it will be a few more decades before the effects on outdoor skating become noticeable.
How bad will things get? That depends on whether we get serious about tackling climate change and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. If our current inaction persists, outdoor skating will largely disappear from Eastern Canada and most of the U.S. over the next 50 years. There will be the occasional winter cold enough to make it worth putting up the boards and flooding the backyard. But in our experience, unless people can count on getting at least four to six weeks of skating, they won’t bother. In the West, kids will still be skating, but the seasons will be shorter and midwinter thaws that challenge the skills and patience of backyard rink makers will be common.
Does it matter? Compared with the many economic and ecological effects of climate change, the loss of outdoor skating opportunities will be relatively minor. But our research has shown that outdoor skating provides a wide range of social benefits in our communities, creates opportunities for kids to be outside and active in the darkest months of the year, and has cultural significance for many Canadians, even those who did not grow up with outdoor skating. By failing to act on reducing greenhouse gas emissions today, we will deny our children’s children this joy.