Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gone skiing

I'm heading to the Austrian Alps for a birthday bonanza of skiing, skating and snowshoeing! Back online next week.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The end of the backyard ice rink?

This is not a story about hockey. Hockey is a game and this goes deeper than that. Strip hockey of its teams, its salaries, its sticks, its pucks, its rules and its regulations. Take all of that away and you are left with what makes hockey possible in the first place. This is a story about ice.

Ice is a part of our collective Canadian consciousness. When I think about the winters of my childhood, I think about the hours spent skating on the tiny ice rink my dad built in our backyard. It was a simple bit of engineering with magical results.

My dad would wait until mid-December for temperatures to drop. After enough snow had fallen, he would clear an area of the backyard and use the snow to make banks around the rink. He repeatedly sprinkled water on the sides of the banks and on the edge of the grass in order to seal the area around the edges so that the water wouldn't leak out. After it had been cold enough for the ground to freeze, he used a hose to build up a base of ice.

Once we had a couple of inches of ice, he would "Zamboni" it by filling a large pail with warm water and flooding the rink. The warm water melted the surface and filled in all of the cuts from earlier skating. It probably took a week or two, depending on the weather, to create a good surface. Of course, thaws and rain would melt the rink but my dad would rebuild it as soon as it got cold again.

I couldn't get enough of that backyard rink. I would skate every day after school and go back out again after dinner. The sound the edge of the blade makes when it scrapes across the ice is etched into my bones.

The backyard ice rink is part of our narrative. But for how much longer? Will future generations of Canadian children be able to skate on homemade outdoor rinks or will it be a story we tell them about the way things used to be?

Climate change is transforming the world as we know it. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. Research shows that Canada's average winter temperature has increased 2.5 degrees Celsius in the past 70 years. According to Environment Canada, last year was the third-warmest winter in Canadian history.

Scientists in Montreal were the first to connect the dots between climate change and a shorter outdoor skating season. They looked at data from weather stations across Canada during the last 50 years and extrapolated that "at current rates, within four decades there will be very little to no outdoor natural skating in Canada with the exception of Winnipeg."

This prompted a group of geographers at Wilfrid Laurier University to create RinkWatch, a website where users can enter information about their rink's skate-ability and where researchers can track climate change. Associate professor Robert McLeman is hoping this will help people better understand large-scale environmental issues by placing them in their own backyard.

As he told the Ottawa Citizen, "When you talk about climate change and global warming, it's one of those big-picture ideas that people have trouble relating to on a personal or individual basis, so we thought, let's get kids and families to collect data about outdoor skating and use that as a bridge to pull them into citizen-engaged science."

It's great to see scientists who understand the importance of getting the public involved in their work. They're not just working to address climate change, they're working to make it matter to all of us. It's about making us less complacent by making us care.