Clock running out on outdoor rinks as climate change throws curveballs
WATERLOO REGION – With temperatures plummeting as the calendar approaches February, hope for outdoor ice rink enthusiasts sounds eternal.
But after weeks of freeze-thaw zigzags that have made launching backyard and community ice fields more dangerous than a mission to Mars, there’s a feeling the winter 2023 clock is about to run out.
“I think a lot of people have already thrown in the towel,” says Robert McLeman, professor of environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and leader of RinkWatch, a team of researchers studying outdoor ice rinks across North America.
“The two winters of the pandemic have actually been great to walk around here. We had cold temperatures in December, built some good rinks, the ponds are frozen and the timing was perfect because the arenas were closed.
“But this year we’re returning to form, which is milder winters with up and down yo-yo-ing freeze and thaw cycles in January and February, and unfortunately that’s going to be more of the norm going forward.”
He says it’s due to climate change, a phenomenon that has upended traditional weather patterns and left a trail of destruction — and watery sheets of ice — in its wake.
“What you’ve seen outside over the last six weeks shows what winters are going to be like in this region in the future,” McLeman says of the wild temperature swings.
“Some people would say, ‘How is this compatible with global warming?’
“But actually it’s very consistent because what we’re seeing is essentially really unstable winter weather conditions. We get this deep freeze where it drops to minus 20 and we say ‘Good heavens!’ and two weeks later it’s plus 5 and plus 10 and we’re like, ‘What on earth happened?’
“We had a period in January when temperatures in the Yukon were milder than down here. And then it just tipped over.”
But as the moss-covered ice rinks will tell you, the Canadian winter isn’t over until it’s over.
“This year has been a little disappointing,” says Michael De Andrade, ice rink coordinator at Kitchener’s still-dormant Admiral Park, one of 30 volunteer-run ice rinks in the neighborhood that are subsidized by the city, another 35 in Waterloo and five in Cambridge Me eagerly awaiting a thumbs up from Mother Nature.
“We usually set up the rinks in the first week of the new year, but we’re a little behind schedule and hope to have cold weather by the end of February or March. If we get three or four weeks I would be pretty happy this year.”
It’s a far cry from its infancy in the ’70s and ’80s, when outdoor ice rinks were virtually indestructible.
“Forty years ago you could play hockey for 16 to 20 weeks,” says De Andrade, who grew up skating from early December to mid-March.
“Now we’re down to less than eight.”
Not that he was deterred. Weather patterns are shifting. It is what it is.
“I don’t see it as ‘eight weeks,'” he insists. “I see it as an opportunity for children in our community to go out and have fun and play in an unrestricted environment without having to pay fancy fees.”
At a simpler level, there are people like Chris Stocks, a Preston ice connoisseur who goes to great lengths to turn his side yard into a slick ice rink.
“I’m outside at 3am every morning shoveling away the snow,” says the determined Cambridge resident, whose 13-year-old son plays hockey.
“I filled it for 16.5 hours in mid-December, but after Christmas we lost an inch of water. It should be tough again by this Saturday or Sunday.”
He laughs. “Every year I do this and hope for the best.”
Stocks is the classic rink enthusiast: he splashes, patches, shovels, and examines the logistics of his neighborhood jewel with the same clinical precision a nuclear physicist examines an atom.
With embedded lights, a laser-leveled skating surface, and a plastic rink liner to prevent runoff during melting, no effort or expense has been spared.
“They cost a few hundred dollars,” confirms RinkWatch’s McLemon, who insists liners are crucial.
“But to really get through a winter like this, you need one, and that’s because even when the rink thaws, the water doesn’t drain away.
“That’s the problem with the playground and ice rinks in the neighborhood. They build them right on tennis courts or basketball courts or baseball fields, and when it first rains or thaws in January, you lose all your water and you have to start over.”
Given the weather frustrations, is there a date after which rink enthusiasts – no matter how determined – will just throw up their hands and say, “That’s it, I’m done!”?
“People will build an ice rink if they can benefit from it for at least four to six weeks,” McLemon says, noting that perfect ice conditions would be “five or six really cold days with an average daily temperature of -5C.
“That’s the expectation.
“If it’s not skateable by Valentine’s Day, they just give up. But this could be one of those winters where, if you hold on, you might be able to skate well into March on a cold February.”
At press time, Environment Canada is forecasting daily highs of -4°C to -9°C in the Waterloo region for the next six days with overnight lows of between -8°C and -14°C – perfect for outdoor ice rink formation .
“You always look at the weather forecast, at daytime temperatures, see if you can flood, and then wait a day or two,” says rink organizer De Andrad, noting that the volunteers are in a state of “nervous anticipation”.
“We removed all these leaves from the asphalt, put up the garbage cans, had the townspeople checked.
“It’s in the hands of the gods at this point!”