Ice plays a crucial role in the measurement of climate change. From the decline of Arctic sea ice to using ancient ice cores to help determine CO₂ content in the atmosphere from many millennia ago, a good chunk of the climate change story is told through frozen water.
Did you know that the climate change “ice-story” is being tracked, in part, by regular folks with ice rinks in their backyards? They are doing double duty as hockey parents and as climate researchers in Canada and the northern U.S. via an innovative program, supported by the NHL, called RinkWatch.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Dr. Robert McLeman, an Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, and one of the founders of RinkWatch, about how citizens, spurred on by their love of hockey, are helping to add to the body of scientific knowledge about climate change.
“I’m a middle aged parent and an environmental scientist focused on the impact of climate change on humans, communities, and other species.”
Dr. Robert McLeman’s self-description shows why he is exceptionally well-suited to have co-founded and help lead RinkWatch, a program that encourages people with backyard ice rinks in Canada and the northern U.S. to become citizen climate scientists by recording data about their ice.
It also doesn’t hurt that Dr. McLeman is a Canadian — and an Ontarian — through and through. “Growing up in Cambridge, Ontario and a fan of the two teams in the province — the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators — spent many a winter day playing shinny (i.e. outdoor) hockey on frozen ponds.” He did his undergraduate work at the University of Western Ontario, got his PhD in Ontario at the University of Guelph, and works today as an Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in, you guessed it, Ontario.
Dr. Robert McLeman, one of the co-founders of RinkWatch and Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario (Photo credit: Robert McLeman)
Awareness of the conditions surrounding climate refugees, has been and continues to be a major focus of Dr. McLeman’s research: “I am very interested in making the issue of climate refugees, and climate change broadly speaking, more accessible for the general public.
CANADIANS LOVE TO TALK ABOUT TWO THINGS: HOCKEY AND THE WEATHER
But accessibility wasn’t the only thing Dr. McLeman and Wilfrid Laurier University colleague Dr. Colin Robertson had in mind in 2013 when they began to talk about collaborating. “We really wanted to answer the question, ‘How do we make individuals and families more interested in the environment, interested in climate change, to the point where they take positive action?’,” recalled Dr. McLeman. “We kept coming back to two things Canadians love to talk about: hockey and the weather.”
Dr. Colin Robertson, co-founder of RinkWatch (Photo credit: Geographers Without Borders)
That realization led McLeman and Robertson to the high tech world of makeshift, backyard hockey rinks. “It started with a simple thought,” shared Dr. McLeman. “Maybe we could create a project in which we would ask regular folks who happen to have backyard ice rinks to track weather-related conditions.”
The January 2013 launch of what would become RinkWatch was a no-budget operation.
“We had zero funding to start,” recalled Dr. McLeman. “So we built a simple website than can compile data like location of the rink, quality of ice, first date ice is playable, etc. We also had a form that showed people how to build a rink. The university put out a press release and the Montreal Gazette, the main English language paper there, picked it up. That really was the catalyst as the story made its way through radio and print media throughout Canada, and really took on a life of its own!”
By the end of their first month, a couple hundred RinkWatchers had signed up. Five years on, 1,500 rinks have participated in RinkWatch. The lions’ share are in Canada, with 20 percent coming from the U.S., along with a handful in China, Estonia and elsewhere.
[Editor’s Note: This is a great example of how, when the media decides to #CoverGreenSports, things can change in a positive fashion.]
THE NHL BUYS IN TO RINKWATCH
RinkWatch soon caught the eye of the NHL, the most proactive professional sports league sustainability-wise in North America, if not the world.
“The NHL started checking in with us, through Omar Mitchell and NHL Green,” said Dr. McLeman. “He had seen articles about RinkWatch in places like National Geographic. The league saw that what we were doing reflected the sustainability vision and commitment of Commissioner Gary Bettman, which is to say that hockey improves lives and communities and we want to do what we can to ensure it is around for the next 100 years.”
Next thing Drs. McLeman and Robertson knew, the NHL started tweeting about RinkWatch, asked them to contribute to the NHL Green website and invited them to speak, as part of the league’s centennial celebration, at a December 2016 event on the long term future of the sport at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. “We became a bit of hit,” offered Dr. McLeman, a bit sheepishly.
Dr. McLeman, speaking at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto (Photo credit: Getty Images)
A formal relationship with the NHL began in 2017, with the league providing funding to help improve the look and functionality of the web site, allow for a broader range data to be included in the future, and to help in the building and dissemination of learning modules for teachers to use with their students. According to Dr. McLeman, the NHL and the academics share two overlapping goals: “1. Get more kids to get more parents to build outdoor rinks, and 2. Get those kids interested in studying environmental science.”
RINKWATCH LEADS TO PEER REVIEWED ACADEMIC STUDIES
Drs. McLeman and Robertson are also using RinkWatch data to advance the body of peer reviewed, climate change research.
“We have been able to publish our results in two scholarly journals,” reported Dr. McLeman. “In The Canadian Geographer, we reported results of a study in which we took RinkWatch observations from a number of Canadian cities, identified the key temperatures need to have a skate-able ice surface (the low 20s Fahrenheit) and put these into a climate model to forecast future skating conditions out to the end of the century.” The study showed that if carbon emissions continue on their current course, the outdoor skating season will be significantly shorter. Calgary’s season will be curtailed by about 20 percent. Outdoor skating in Toronto and Montreal is expected to be 30 to 40 percent shorter.
According to a study by McLeman and Robertson, published in The Canadian Geographer, the future of outdoor ice hockey on Lake Louise in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada is at risk due to the effects of climate change (Photo credit: Edmonton Journal)
In another study, this one for the journal Leisure/Loisir, the duo reported on findings from a survey they conducted of RinkWatch participants to find out what motivates people to build rinks. According to Dr. McLeman, “an overarching response is that people see backyard rinks as community assets, shared with neighbors and friends, with the goal of getting kids outside, exercising and having fun in the middle of winter.”
That their work has been peer reviewed is a very big deal. “The importance of crossing the peer reviewed threshold cannot be overstated,” concurs Dr. McLeman. “Other environmental scientists like the idea that we’re legitimately, with accepted rigor, connecting sports to climate and ordinary citizens with science. They realize that the urgency and importance of climate change is very difficult to communicate and they see that our work makes it more relatable.”
As for what’s next, the Wilfrid Laurier University colleagues will look to reconstruct the temperature and ice conditions in Canada going back to 1950 so they will have a 150-year (1950-2100) data record. There is a practical aspect to this,” said Dr. McLeman: “Our data can help municipalities determine whether to invest in outdoor rinks or put their resources into indoor facilities.”
While that 150-year horizon is actually a nano-second in a field like climate science, Dr. McLeman finds it easy to see the real-time importance of his and Dr. Robertson’s work with RinkWatch.
“My daughter Anna is now 13. When she was 8, we built an outdoor rink with our community association on top of a tennis court — man, it was hard to spray water with a hose in my hand — it was COLD! In those five years, we’ve had one and a half good winters for skating, the rest were awful. I know this is one awfully small sample size, but it is this type of experience that, we hope, will lead to more and more collective positive environmental action.”
Young RinkWatcher Anna McLeman takes to the ice in the outdoor rink she, her dad Robert and their community built (Photo credit: Robert McLeman)