El Nino causes confusion in backyard ice rinks across Canada

According to RinkWatch — an online map for citizens to report the conditions of outdoor rinks across North America — the ice is beautiful in Calgary. But east of the Great Lakes, you can possibly swim, not skate.

RinkWatch reports nice ice in Calgary, swimming pools in Waterloo, Ont.

Typically, the prime time for skating on this outdoor ice rink in Calgary is mid-January. However, this photo was taken on Sunday. (David Gray/CBC)

El Nino has thrown Canada's backyard ice rinks into a Bizarro World, causing ideal early-winter skating conditions in the Prairies and soupy ponds east of the Great Lakes.

"Where I am — it's great weather for having outdoor swimming pools," said Robert McLeman in Waterloo, Ont.

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The professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University is one of the founders of RinkWatch, a website allowing people to pin their neighbourhood ice rinks on a map, and update the conditions all winter.

"Then what we do is we pool that data with rink watchers across North America and we use it to track a number of different things relating to winter weather conditions and climate trends."

'Where I am — it’s great weather for having outdoor swimming pools,' said Robert McLeman, a professor of environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. (CBC)

After four seasons, McLeman says, he and his team have figured out the "magic" formula,  in terms of temperature, to produce the perfect outdoor ice rink.

"Several nights of –10 C or colder to get a good base and then you need a minimum of –5 C temperatures on a daily basis," he said.

McLeman says that typically, those perfect ice rink conditions roll into Ontario and Quebec in late November or early December — allowing people in those parts to skate outdoors until the end of February.

But instead, El Nino cast an early cold spell over Alberta — where backyard skating doesn't usually get going until January.

The first ice rink recorded this season in Canada on RinkWatch as being easy to skate on was in Fort McMurray, Alta., and McLeman says he's seeing good conditions in rinks across Calgary.

But he doesn't expect it to last. Not if El Nino has its way.

"You'll probably see a lot more freezes and thaws this year than you typically will, which makes it frustrating to maintain a rink especially if you don't have a watertight liner underneath it."

Last February, Claude Hebert braved temperatures dipping to -30 C to hone his hockey skills on an outdoor rink in Montreal. It was 3 C and raining on Tuesday in the city. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The future of Canada's ice rinks

The founders of RinkWatch have been watching rinks across North America since 2012, and recently crunched the first two years of data.

By combining this information with daily temperature simulations based on a global climate model, researchers projected that the number of skating days will decline by 34 per cent in Toronto and Montreal by 2090.

"For the city of Calgary, we found that by the end of the century, it will will lose 20 per cent of skating days," said McLeman.

"Not as many as I feared. So you know, the glass is either half full or half empty."

Looking forward, RinkWatch wants to get skaters in Scandinavia, Russia and Northern China to pin their backyard rinks on their map.

"We got our first rink this year from Estonia, of all places."

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