Citizen Hockey Scientists Check Climate Change

RinkWatch Citizen Science Project Drafts Outdoor Hockey Players

RinkWatch Citizen Science Project Drafts Outdoor Hockey Players

RinkWatch is the newest way to incorporate an important Canadian national pastime with a little science in an effort to measure climate change. The new citizen science project is encouraging everyone with a backyard hockey rink to log into the RinkWatch website and describe the conditions.

Already in just a couple of weeks over 400 homemade ice rink owners around the Great Lakes have begun gathering data for scientists at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

They are asking people to log on and report the ice conditions on their rinks. They want to know if people are skating or not. That information will help climate scientists see in finer detail how climate change is affecting winter across North America.

And the proof may be in the ice rinks. In recent years backyard hockey season has started later and ended earlier. Melting events have made ice slushy and hard or impossible to skate. By collecting the observations of volunteers in the northern U.S. and across Canada, three geographers are hoping to better understand how winter is changing over time.

According to Environment Canada, winter temperatures across Canada have increased 3°C in the last 65 years. A study last year found similar results and another warned that outdoor hockey rinks may go extinct (PDF) in a warmer world.

Geography and environmental science professor Robert McLeman says, “The winters are different now than they were 20, 40, 60 years ago, and these [rinks] are things that they make a connection with personally.”

RinkWatch is modeled after birdwatching citizen science projects that conduct annual bird counts and note their locations.

He says, “The season is getting shorter, and there are fewer skating days, and within the skating season there are more of these freeze-thaw-freeze events that mean you’re not getting on to the rinks as often as you would have in the past.”

Fred and Oliver Fizet Play Hockey in the Backyard in Quebec

Fred and Oliver Fizet Play Hockey in the Backyard in Quebec

McLeman wants to know when people with backyard ice rinks are skating and when they are just watching ice melt.

He says, “We can start to track what’s going on with skating conditions across the continent and then by default track what’s going on with winter climate trends.”

McLeman and his colleague Colin Robertson are taking geographic data and figuring out ways to apply them to health and environmental research.

While climate change overall is very hard to grasp, McLeman says, “Everyone understands what’s going on in their backyard.”

When scientists in Montreal warned last year that there would be fewer outdoor hockey rinks in the future all of Canada took notice. At the time, Lawrence Mysak told CTV Montreal, “In the next 50 years, the skating season could disappear in most of the regions across Canada.”

McLeman says, “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.

But when climate change started body checking hockey fans the RinkWatch team saw an opportunity.

McLeman says, “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.”

Hockey phenom Wayne Gretzky learned to skate and play hockey on a backyard ice rink his father built for him. Climate change will make it more difficult for future Wayne Gretzkys to have that experience. And that is something Canada will not tolerate.

The idea of melted hockey rinks in winter rattled around McLeman, Robertson and graduate student Haydn Lawrence for a while and then RinkWatch was born. The site launched on January 8 and within days the server crashed because it couldn’t handle the traffic. Now the site is back and growing every day.

McLeman sees Rinkwatch as a way to get citizens involved in climate science. He says, “Citizen science really is the idea that science doesn’t need to be conducted in laboratories, in institutions by professional scientists alone. What we really need is public involvement, public engagement.”

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