Outdoor hockey on thin ice

by James Martin, MLIS'05

Image: Istockphoto

The outdoor skating rink may be an iconic symbol of Canadian life but — according to Nikolay Damyanov, MSc’11, the lead author of a climate change study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters — its continued existence is on thin ice.

Damyanov’s project tracks how the length of the outdoor skating season has changed over the past half-century. From talking to rink keepers across Canada, he learned that temperature was the major factor behind knowing when it was time to flood a rink: You need three days of -5°C (or colder) to prevent the ground from absorbing water. By consulting 55 years’ worth of meticulous Environment Canada data, Damyanov then pinpointed this initial cold streak, year by year, in 142 locations across the country. He next figured out the length of the skating season by counting the days until the weather became too warm to support blade-worthy ice. (In the southern half of Canada, rink keepers usually stop maintaining the ice after March 1.)

Then came the bad news: A year-by-year comparison shows that the skating season generally isn’t starting that much later than it did 55 years ago — but it is ending earlier. In some cases, as much as 15 days earlier.

The culprit is global warming. Since 1950, Canada’s winter temperatures have increased by more than three times the global average. “Increasing greenhouse gases are making the air temperature warmer,” explains Lawrence Mysak, a professor emeritus of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, who co-authored the paper, along with Concordia professor Damon Matthews. “It’s as simple as that.”

Although no part of Canada is unaffected — Ottawa, for one, made headlines this year when it cut short the Rideau Canal Skateway’s season due to unseasonably warm weather — the hardest hit areas are inland British Columbia and Alberta, which could see a complete end to outdoor skating within a few decades.