Sunday, January 6, 2013

RinkWatch.org: Ending backyard rinklessness

I’ve never been a great skater. My dad is from a part of the west coast where the ponds never froze in winter, and no one owned skates. So, growing up I played organized basketball in winter like he did, not hockey. I learned to skate on frozen Moffat Creek out the back of our house, and on the outdoor rink at my school. Once a year, we were all bused to a local arena to try out for the skating races, where the fastest skaters were selected to represent our school in the citywide skating races at the Galt Arena Gardens, which was a big deal. My finest achievement in this regard came in the fourth grade, when I qualified for the mixed relay team (i.e. boys & girls) and we won a 5th-place ribbon. If you know anything about skating races, the mixed relay is not exactly the premier event.

Perhaps it was the pressure of the skating races, but I’ve never thought skating in an indoor rink was much fun (although I must confess I did enjoy watching the Zamboni, and still do). No indoor ice surface can compare with a hard, cold, outdoor pond or a well-maintained neighbourhood rink. The sound your blades make as they scratch across real ice, your steamy breath hanging in the air, not going inside until you can no longer feel your fingers or toe – those are the best parts of a southwestern Ontario winter when you’re a kid, even one who is a crummy skater.

Or at least, so they were. Winters today in southwestern Ontario simply aren’t as cold or as long as they were back in the 1970s. It’s a longstanding Canadian legend how Wayne Gretzky learned to play on a backyard rink maintained by his dad. We had a backyard rink a few times as well when I was a kid, but the magic never worked for me. Today, it would be Gretzky’s dad who would need a little magic – you’d be hard pressed to conjure up a decent backyard rink in Brantford this winter. A study released by scientists at Concordia University last year looked at weather station records across Canada* and predicted that the outdoor skating rink will be an endangered species across much of Canada as a result of climate change.

A couple colleagues and I have decided to do something. We’ve created a website called rinkwatch.org. It encourages people who maintain a backyard or community rink to register their location and a picture of their rink. Then, each week they’re asked to record on what days the rink was suitable for skating. The aim is to get backyard rink enthusiasts from across the country to become rinkwatchers, and to keep coming back to the site each year. Over time, we’ll have a collection of crowdsourced data about winter weather conditions at a wide range of precise locations that we can use to monitor winter conditions. More importantly, by getting people to use rinkwatch we’re hoping they’ll become more interested in environmental science, climate change, and maybe get them enthused for greater involvement with citizen environmental science.

We’ll see how it goes. The WLU media office is going to help spread the word. If you’re a hoser who maintains a backyard rink, or know someone who does, please send the link along to them. As the website says, we’ve got to do our best to end backyard rinklessness. Happy skating everyone! 


*Damyanov, N. N., Matthews, H. D., & Mysak, L. A. (2012). Observed decreases in the Canadian outdoor skating season due to recent winter warming. Environmental Research Letters, 7(014028). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/1/014028

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