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Ice rinks as sentinels of climate change

Researchers ask backyard ice-rink enthusiasts to track and report skating conditions.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JAN 30 2013
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A young skater plays hockey on an outdoor rink in Ottawa. Photo: Léo Charbonneau.

It’s the stuff of legend, the story of Wayne Gretzky’s dad devotedly maintaining a backyard skating rink in Brantford, Ontario, for his future hockey-star son. But outdoor skating rinks are dear to many Canadians, as researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University discovered when they launched a website in January to collect data on outdoor rinks. Within a week of announcing their project, they had registered more than 250 rinks from across Canada into their database at rinkwatch.org.

The idea, says associate professor Robert McLeman of Laurier’s department of geography and environmental studies, is to invite Canadians to act as “citizen scientists” by reporting skating conditions in their backyard or neighbourhood rinks. The data will be used to help track the impact of climate change on a venerable Canadian tradition. He and colleague Colin Robertson, along with master’s student Haydn Lawrence, got the idea from bird watchers, who’ve been operating websites for many years to crowd-source data on bird populations.

Backyard skating rinks are “a labour of love” and “part of our cultural fabric,” says Dr. McLeman, but he acknowledges they’re becoming endangered. Scientists at McGill and Concordia universities published a study in the journal Environmental Research Letters last year showing that the outdoor skating season has become shorter because of climate change, and Environment Canada chose unusually warm temperatures from coast to coast in 2012 as Canada’s top weather story of the year.

Dr. McLeman, who has fond memories of skating on outdoor rinks and on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal skateway, laments that future generations may not have that experience. “I know the feeling of waiting for the magical day when the canal opens up,” he says.

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