Ontario, eastern provinces seeing fewer winter days cold enough for outdoor rinks: Report

It was a 'tale of two winters' in Canada when it came to which parts of the country were cold enough for outdoor skating rinks and which ones were not, researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., say.

Northern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan will have good outdoor skating ‘for decades to come,’ researcher says

A young skater hits Carl Zehr Square in Kitchener on Dec. 24, 2019. A new report from researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University has found there was great conditions for outdoor skating rinks in the western and northern parts of the country, but southern Ontario and eastern provinces had temperatures that fluctuated and made it hard to maintain outdoor rinks. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

It was the coldest of times, it was the yo-yo-est of times.

What Canada experienced between October of last year and April of this year was "a tale of two winters," researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., say, particularly when it came to temperatures cold enough to maintain outdoor skating rinks.

"What we saw is that, out west, especially in Western Canada, the Prairie provinces, especially as you move farther north, they had wonderful skating conditions," said Robert McLeman, a professor of environmental studies at Laurier. 

He is also co-director of Rinkwatch, a project that asks people across the country to report on the conditions of outdoor skating rinks throughout winter.

"It got cold in November and the rinks opened and they stayed open right through until March. We had people reporting that they had more than essentially four months of continuous outdoor skating," he said.

In southern Ontario and into the U.S., it was a very different story, he said. The researchers said backyard rinks in Michigan and upstate New York saw fewer than three weeks of good skating. In Ontario to New Brunswick, there wasn't a sustained cold to keep rinks frozen for long periods of time.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa, for example, closed for the season on Feb. 26 after seeing just 381,000 visits, the second-lowest attendance since visitor tracking began in 1992-93.

"People just had a really tough time getting a rink going in the first place," McLeman said. "And when they did, there was lots of freeze and thaws. So it was a really messy, slushy, not so good winter for skating here in eastern North America."

'A good snapshot'

While they can't make any projections on just one year of data, the researchers have been studying outdoor rinks since 2013 and McLeman says they're seeing trends.

This winter is "a good snapshot" of what people can expect, he said. Places like northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, which are historically cold and have long winters, will "continue to have good outdoor skating for decades to come."

Places around the Great Lakes region see highly variable winters.

"We're going to see this steady erosion … in terms of the length of the skating season and many more of these sort of call them yo-yo winters," he said.

The report was released this week and McLeman says while May could seem like an odd time to talk about winter and skating rinks, the message behind the report is one that people need to hear at any time of the year.

"Most people understand climate change is real, it's happening, but how does that affect me?" he said.

"We can talk about polar bears in the Arctic or we can talk about glaciers in the mountains but back here, a skating rink, every neighborhood has one in southern Ontario, so it's a way that people can can look at what's going on around them and judge for themselves what's happened."

He said people will talk to their parents and grandparents and inevitably they'll talk about skating from November until Easter in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Well, that just doesn't happen around here anymore," he said. "It gives us something that we can sort of think about and say, well, if we want to protect this part of Canadian culture how do we do so? And obviously one of the ways we do so is to attack the root cause of climate change, which is fossil fuels and things like that."


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