Photo: Rinkwatch wants Canadians to keep on skating - outdoors

(Credit: Benson Kua via Flickr)

By Robert McLeman

Few sights or sounds are more quintessentially Canadian than a group of kids skating on an outdoor rink or frozen pond. Outdoor skating is part of our national DNA. It doesn't matter if our ancestors came to this cold northern land 10,000 years ago, or if we got here last year. It doesn't matter if we live in Victoria, where ponds never freeze, or if we never learned to skate ourselves; we Canadians can appreciate a good rink.

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But are the outdoor rink's days numbered? Studies warn that in coming decades winters will be too short and mild to make a decent rink across much of Canada. In 2012, Montreal-based scientists found that the outdoor skating season has become shorter since the 1950s, a trend that will continue as a direct consequence of human-caused climate change.

The plight of the backyard rink presents both challenges and opportunities. The most obvious challenge is to address the underlying reason why rinks are becoming an endangered species — namely, runaway greenhouse gas emissions. Another challenge is to do for rinks what we must do for any endangered species: monitor their numbers, document changes in their condition and raise awareness so that people will take action to prevent their demise.

The opportunities are many. One is to use rinks to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change. If you are a member or follower of the David Suzuki Foundation, or if David Suzuki got your vote as The Greatest Canadian, you likely don't need persuading that climate change is real, and that we need real action to deal with it. However, many Canadians are not so familiar with the scientific evidence, and are not aware of the risks we face. As a result, they don't think dealing with it is a priority. When the media describe the potential impacts of climate change, the examples given are often remote from the experience of most Canadians: declining polar bear populations, melting polar ice sheets, droughts and wildfires in faraway lands. In other words, changes in things and places many of us will never see.

It is perfectly legitimate for the average Canadian to ask, "How will climate change affect me?" If knowledgeable people are unable to answer this simple question in clear, plain language with understandable examples, meaningful collective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not happen. Of all the things that may be affected by climate change, skating rinks probably aren't the most important. But — and this is an important "but" — outdoor skating is something a lot of Canadians understand and cherish. Remember, David Suzuki made the top 10 list of Greatest Canadians, but two hockey personalities — Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky — also made it. As Canadians learn that climate change threatens the outdoor rink, that mythical place where a kid from Brantford mastered the art of hockey, the message becomes a little clearer.

The fate of the backyard rink also permits an intergenerational conversation about how our environment has changed. Ask someone who was born in Canada in the first half of the 20th century what winters were like when they were young. Chances are they will tell you that winters were longer, colder and snowier. If they had an outdoor rink in their backyard, schoolyard or neighbourhood park when they were kids, they will tell you how most winters they skated every day from the beginning of December to the end of March. Winters like that are increasingly rare (unless you live well to the north of Canada's most densely populated areas). Scientific accounts of climate change over the past century can seem dull and distant to the average Canadian family, but when a grandparent tells a grandchild the same thing using familiar examples, it resonates.

There are still two more opportunities. One is to hook Canadian families to citizen science. The only way we can monitor the well-being of outdoor rinks is if the people who build them do the monitoring. In my experience, people who have rinks love to talk about them, and rightly so. A backyard rink is a lot of work. It requires standing outside night after frigid night to do the flooding. A rink is a physical expression of love and affection for children, for without kids to skate on it, a rink is rarely built. Loving, caring families who enjoy being outdoors in winter are exactly the type of people we might engage in other citizen science enterprises. The family that reports data on rinks today might be collecting data on birds or wildflowers tomorrow.

The most important opportunity is to get our kids back outside and playing again. Far too many studies report that our children (and us) are becoming unfit and unwell from lack of exercise. Many spend no more than a few minutes a day outdoors, and that amount drops as the temperature outside falls. We must remind Canadians that one of the best things we can do for the kids in our communities is to build them a rink.

It is for all these challenges and opportunities that Haydn Lawrence, Colin Robertson and I launched in January 2013. It is a simple website that asks anyone who builds or skates on an outdoor rink to pin its location on an interactive map and update the skating conditions throughout the winter. Nearly a thousand people from across North America registered their rinks for our first winter. Users asked that we create an online forum where they could share with one another photos, stories and tips for making a better rink. We happily obliged. We analyzed their data and found that rinks are indeed a useful indicator of daily weather conditions. If we can persuade them to keep coming back each winter, over time we will have a better idea of how winter climate trends are playing out in our backyards. In the meantime, we ask for your help in spreading word about RinkWatch. If you have an outdoor rink, please join us. If you know someone else who does, please tell them about us.

And most important of all, take a kid skating, outdoors, while you still can.

Robert McLeman is Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

January 22, 2014

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