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The Science Behind Outdoor Rinks

by NHL Green / NHL.com

The article below was contributed by Robert McLeman, Colin Robertson, and Haydn Lawrence,
geographers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

When the NHL asked us to contribute a blog posting about outdoor rinks, we were totally stoked. Not only do we make and skate on outdoor rinks, we study them through a project called RinkWatch (www.rinkwatch.org). We’re environmental researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, and we use information about outdoor rinks to track winter climate trends. We’re also interested in learning about the types of people who build rinks, why they do it, and how our communities benefit from having rinks in backyards and neighbourhood parks.

Three winters ago we launched RinkWatch with a simple plan: we ask people who have a rink to pin its location on our website’s interactive map, and report the skating conditions throughout the winter. So far, we’ve had reports from over 1,500 rinks from across North America (and a few from Scandinavia, too). We pool this data and use a geospatial and numerical modelling techniques to work out what rinks are telling us about the weather.

Why do we do this? Because scientists warn that winters are becoming shorter and milder, and that the backyard rink may soon become an endangered species. If that’s the case, we need to monitor the health of outdoor rinks, just as we do with any other endangered species. We must track their numbers and condition, and learn how changes in the environment are affecting them. And most importantly, we need to get people talking about how to prevent them from disappearing.

Since it’s only our third winter, it’s too soon to say what will be the long-term impacts of climate change on rinks. One thing we can already see from our data is that -5oC (23oF) is the magic number; when average daily temperatures get warmer than this, rinks quickly become unskateable. We can see this in the graph below, which we created by combining RinkWatch data with weather station data for Montreal and Toronto. The graph shows how temperature affects the probability that people will be skating on outdoor rinks. When the average daily temperature is -10oC or colder, you can be almost 100% certain people will be outside skating. But as temperatures get warmer than -5oC, the likelihood people will be skating drops below 50%.

What this means is that, if average winter temperatures rise above -5oC but remain colder than zero Celsius, outdoor rinks could disappear from our neighborhoods but the snow and slush will stick around. Something else we can see from the graph is that, as the temperature gets warmer, people in Montreal are quicker to stop skating than are people in Toronto. It looks like Torontonians are more willing to put up with poor ice conditions than skaters in Montreal, who tend to get more skating days each winter given the relatively colder temperatures. If winter warming trends continue, Montreal skaters may have to accept the softer, slower ice more common to outdoor rinks in the other ‘Original Six’ cities.

One other important thing we’ve learned through RinkWatch is how fantastic rink makers are. A survey we did last year found that people make rinks because they want to create a neighborhood gathering place – somewhere the kids can have fun, hang out with their friends, and maybe play some shinny. Rink makers also like to share photos and tips with one another, as you can see from the user forums on the RinkWatch website and on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/RinkWatch).

So, if you have a rink or know someone that does, check out the RinkWatch website. And even if you don’t have a rink, please still check us out and explore the science of outdoor rinks.

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