Outdoor rink climate change project gets hundreds of citizen scientists

An Ontario university's research that involves recruiting outdoor rinks to help track climate change has now signed up hundreds of volunteers, in a citizen science-driven project that is far surpassing its creators' expectations.

Wilfrid Laurier University researchers recruit RinkWatch participants to record climate patterns

Science on skates

10 years ago
Duration 2:19
Researchers say ice conditions on outdoor rinks are a great way to track climate change. At the very least, it's a great way to attract volunteers for a project called RinkWatch

An Ontario university's research that involves recruiting outdoor rinks to help track climate change has now signed up hundreds of volunteers, in a citizen science-driven project that is far surpassing its creators' expectations.

Climate scientists at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., created a RinkWatch website (rinkwatch.org) to draft participants for the project launched 2½ weeks ago. Since CBCNews.ca first reported on RinkWatch last Friday, the number of frozen puddles, ponds and backyard arenas involved has increased by 50 to 425 as of 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. 

"We were sort of running this off the side of our desks just as a project to see, 'Is there any interest, let's try it out,'" said Robert McLeman, an associate professor of geography and environmental studies at the Waterloo university.

'The winters are different now than they were 20, 40, 60 years ago, and these [rinks] are things that they make a connection with personally.'—Robert McLeman, Wilfrid Laurier University researcher

"We launched on Jan. 8, and the phones lit up and the website crashed several times."

Average people building their own rinks or using neighbourhood ones are asked to keep a log about the conditions on their favourite ice surface.

"We can start to track what's going on with skating conditions across the continent and then by default track what's going on with winter climate trends," explains McLeman.

Rink project modelled on birdwatchers' efforts

McLeman helped conceive the rink-tracking concept with his colleague, Colin Robertson, and Haydn Lawrence, one of his graduate students.

"Everyone understands what's going on in their backyard," said McLeman about what drove the idea for the project.

"The winters are different now than they were 20, 40, 60 years ago, and these [rinks] are things that they make a connection with personally."

McLeman says the project was modelled on the efforts of birdwatchers, who have been conducting backyard bird counts for decades. A forum on rinkwatch.org allows "rinkwatchers" to swap advice and discuss their ice pads with each other.

For first-time home rink builder Stewart Fast, RinkWatch isn't just about monitoring climate change.

"Anything to brag about your rink is fun," jokes Fast in his Ottawa backyard.

But on a more serious note, he remarks "it is a different way of thinking about your rink."

"I'm very much more aware of changes in the temperature, especially stuff around zero degrees," explains Fast. He particularly likes the idea of tracking climate data from a personal level.

The Rideau Canal's algae factor

This is RinkWatch's first year, and one year of data isn't enough when trying to examine changes in climate.

In Ottawa, there is one outdoor ice pad that has decades of data about its winter conditions: The Rideau Canal.

There are decades of data about the winter conditions of the Rideau Canal, making it easier to track the effect of climate change on the Ottawa canal.

Climate change's effects on the canal are there, but from an unlikely source: Algae.

"It affects the integrity of the ice because it grows right through the ice, and in the springtime, it actually speeds up the rotting process of the ice," says Marc Corriveau, the National Capital Commission's director of Urban Lands and Transportation, the department responsible for the world famous iceway.

Warmer summers make it easier for algae to bloom. Because of algae's threat to the ice, the NCC harvests the green slime every year.

Meanwhile, backyard rinkwatchers are helping science achieve a broader understanding of the effects of climate change.

"Citizen science really is the idea that science doesn't need to be conducted in laboratories, in institutions by professional scientists alone. What we really need is public involvement, public engagement," argues McLeman.