Scott Krysa first began skating when he was 3 years old. At 5, he picked up his first hockey stick. Now 26, the current Toronto resident still hits the ice three times a week, twice as part of an organized amateur hockey league and once at one of the city’s 52 outdoor rinks it maintains.
Hockey, he said, is part of Canadians’ blood. "Kids in Canada, we play hockey on the street, in the house, really anywhere."
Growing up in northern Manitoba, where winter is the dominant season, gracing residents with its presence for about seven months a year, Krysa said, playing hockey outside with friends was a staple of his childhood. His best friend to this day, with whom he plays organized hockey still, he met playing shinny hockey, or outdoor puck, informal games of what some call pond hockey.
These dreams are melting, rapidly. Canada’s winter temperatures have risen more than 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit between 1951 and 2005, nearly three times the global average.
In a 2012 study in the Institute of Physics’ journal, Environmental Research Letters, by three Canadian researchers found that between 1951 and 2005, many areas across the country saw decreases in the length of the outdoor skating season upward of 20 percent.
In many places, such as in southwest Canada and across most of central and eastern Canada, winter now begins later. Additionally, temperatures are not staying low enough long enough to allow ice to freeze over.
"In the absence of efforts to maintain artificially cooled outdoor rinks, this result implies a foreseeable end to outdoor skating in this region within the next few decades," the authors write.
This is the equivalent of Mother Nature tampering with baseball in the United States.
In 2013, nearly 1.3 million Canadians 15 and older played hockey; it’s listed as the second most played sport in the country, after golf. According to statistics from the 2005 General Social Survey, 11 percent of 5-to-14-year-olds participated in organized hockey. For obvious reasons, statistics on more participation in the more informal variations of the sport are hard to come by.
A 2012 Canadian Broadcasting Corp. poll found that "48 percent of Canadians say hockey is an important source of personal or collective pride in Canada." Hockey’s importance to the country of 33 million has been likened to that of maple syrup.
Crowdsourcing for ice
Krysa, who has a cabin near a lake up north, said it’s usually around Christmas time that he can shovel the snow off and lace up his skates, but not this year.
"There was no snow at Christmas," he said. "I’ve seen many years lately where it’s not frozen when it should be."
Three years ago, two geography professors and a doctoral student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, were brainstorming the best ways to communicate the threats of climate change to fellow Canadians.
"What do Canadians care about most? They’re most often talking about hockey and the weather," said Robert McLeman, one of the geography professors at Wilfrid Laurier and co-creator of RinkWatch, a citizen science tool where people can submit locations of their backyard skating rinks and then provide daily updates on when they can and cannot skate.
Now in its third winter, RinkWatch has amassed data from between 1,500 and 2,000 rinks, and its crowd-sourced data have provided some real-world, empirical data toward the climate change models, which forecast doom for the future of outdoor ice rinks.
The rinks RinkWatch is tracking are created on a variety of surfaces, McLeman said, often parents flooding a sheet of plastic on a level patch of backyard or local park. After about five days of flooding, long enough to build up the ice, the neighborhood kids can go at it.
One thing McLeman said researchers have been able to parse from the data is the "magic" daily temperature for a skateable surface. If the temperature rises above 23 F, the rink becomes a slushy mess.
That’s part of the danger of climate change. Just a few degrees higher leaves the ice unskateable even though it’s still cold outside, McLeman said.
"It’s the same as a coastal community experiencing a heat wave, but the beaches are closed because of pollution," he explained.
Canada’s version of ‘Bowling Alone’
Local ice rinks are also good reflectors of winter weather trends, and McLeman and the team have been able to discern even within cities which neighborhoods keep their rinks longer because of urban temperature variations.
Looking forward, McLeman and his team have forecast that by 2090 not all areas of the country will be equally affected by climate change. Toronto, they estimate, will lose 25 percent of its skating season. Montreal will experience an 18 percent decline and Calgary, Alberta, 13 percent.
This year, for example, Toronto is experiencing a cold snap that has pushed the city to scramble to find additional funding to keep more of its outdoor rinks open even as the season was supposed to be coming to a close. It costs about $4,500 per week to maintain one rink.
As a cultural activity, McLeman said skating isn’t just a tradition borne of happenstance and cold, long winters, but a way to connect the community. The RinkWatch data show most ice rink builders tend to be parents with kids under 14 who spend the time flooding patches of ice in the cold with the intention that the rink will be shared by the community.
"It becomes a public meeting place," he said, adding that to the rest of the world looking at the laundry list of climate change impacts, he understands that saving Canada’s skating rinks may not rank very high.
But, he added, to get Canadians to consider the tough choices they’ll need to make to combat climate change, using outdoor hockey, leveraging their culture, is a smart move. "If you tell them your kids and their kids probably won’t be able to skate outside, you know you’re speaking their language."
Krysa said he and his hockey-playing friends often talk about what a warmer Canada might mean for the future of the sport. Because they rely on cooperative winter weather to play, he said they have seen firsthand how winters have warmed.
But for Krysa, there is no doubt in his mind that, one way or another, he intends to pass this bit of Canadian culture on to his kids.
"Oh yes, 100 percent," he said. "I can only hope they’re better than me."