Sunday, November 16, 2014

Winter's arrived, time for RinkWatch and IceWatch

Winter weather conditions hit Waterloo this weekend, and I’m liking it because it means RinkWatch and IceWatch stir to life once again. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let me explain….

Two things Canadians love to do in winter are (1) talk about the weather, and (2) skate. Like all generalizations, there are exceptions. Many adult Canadians haven’t worn a pair of skates since they were kids, and there are others who immigrated here from countries where people can’t or don’t skate. Out on the British Columba coast, you have to drive into the mountains to find ice and snow. But despite the exceptions, it is safe to say that Canada is a country with a disproportionate number of weather-talkers and skating enthusiasts. We also have a lot of fellow travellers in the northern US, where freezing winter temperatures are also met with much talk and, for some, much enthusiasm. If you’re one of those weather-talking/skating types, RinkWatch and IceWatch were designed for you.

For the third straight winter, my colleagues Colin Robertson, Haydn Lawrence and I are asking residents of the frozen northland who maintain a backyard or neighbourhood skating rink to participate in our RinkWatch program. We launched the RinkWatch website in January 2013 as an unfunded, proof-of-concept experiment in citizen science. We figured there must be thousands of people with backyard rinks across Canada and the northern US. If we could get them to pin the locations of their rinks on an online map and then let us know on a daily basis if the rink was skateable or not given the weather, we might be able to learn more bout winter weather than can be gleaned from weather station data alone. We hoped that, if we could get people coming back year after year, over time we could create a database of longitudinal information that might help us identify longer term variability and change in winter conditions.

If you’ve been following RinkWatch, you know that it exceeded our wildest expectations. We hoped that we might get 50 or 100 users that first winter; we actually had 1000 rinks registered. We did over 60 media interviews, and RinkWatch has been featured in CBC TV’s National news, National Geographic (March 2014, p. 20), and (my personal favourite) on North Country Public Radio. Although our project is completely unfunded, we’ve received generous support from Canadian Tire and from ESRI Canada, makers of the finest GIS software going. If you are already a RinkWatcher, please be sure to check back in this winter, as soon as your rink is skateable. If you’re not yet a RinkWatcher but you have a backyard rink or know someone who does, please visit the website and register your rink. There’s a super-cool interactive map showing rink locations and past skating information, photos, some busy user discussion groups, and scientific reports and studies as well.

I’m also fortunate to be involved in a longer-running citizen science initiative called IceWatch. Fifteen years ago, IceWatch was one of several citizen science projects developed as a partnership between Environment Canada scientists and the environmental NGO Nature Canada. Along with PlantWatch, FrogWatch and WormWatch, IceWatch was launched under the banner of the NatureWatch website. The idea behind IceWatch was to ask Canadians who live on or near a body of water that freezes over each winter to submit the ice-on and ice-off dates to the website. Over time, those observations would help scientists track winter climate trends. Although the projects we initially very popular, the amount of resources being dedicated to them dwindled. Three years ago, Environment Canada wanted to disengage from NatureWatch altogether, so a colleague at uOttawa, Andre Viau, and I assumed responsibility for NatureWatch. We obtained a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, renewed our partnership with Nature Canada and added the David Suzuki Foundation as a new partner. With a lot of hard work from the technical staff at uOttawa’s Centre for e-learning and some useful technical advice from Waterloo-based learning software company Desire2Learn, we gave NatureWatch a much-needed overhaul.

This week we are launching our new and improved IceWatch website which, if I may be allowed to be immodest, totally rocks. It is sharp, engaging, and we hope it will (re)kindle enthusiasm for citizen science in Canada. Please have a look. For those of you who skate on a pond, lake, or river (as opposed to a handmade rink), please let us know via IceWatch when that body of water freezes across this winter, as well as the date when the ice breaks up next spring. But you don’t need to skate to participate in IceWatch. If you’re one of those lucky people who lives close to water, you’re also encouraged to plug those ice-on and ice-off dates into IceWatch.

To all of you, whether you skate or not, I hope you have a safe and happy winter. Don’t forget to take time to bundle up in warm clothes and get outside, life’s too short to huddle indoors waiting for spring. But if you are indoors, here's a short video describing RinkWatch that you might enjoy...