Climate Change’s Latest Victim: Ice Hockey

For outdoor ice rinks, hockey season has gotten shorter in the past 50 years

Outdoor ice skating is deeply ingrained in Canadian culture. (Image by Flickr user *myoldpostcards*)
smithsonian.com

You’ve no doubt heard about the myriad effects of rising global temperatures: droughts, drying rivers, lowland floods, plummeting populations of polar bears and Emperor penguins, coastal storms putting Arctic villages in mortal danger. Now there’s a new victim: the future of Canadian ice hockey.

To those of us who don’t follow sports, it might seem like a silly thing to fret over. But ice hockey is actually quite important to the culture and economy of Canada. The first organized game of indoor hockey, in 1875, took place in Montreal. When the country sent its first astronaut into space, he took a hockey stick and puck with him. Every year, according to one report, more than one-fifth of the country’s adult population attends or plays in an ice hockey game.

Because a lot of this hockey fun takes place in outdoor ice rinks, the scientists behind the new study wondered if the sport has been influenced by the changing climate. Since 1950, average winter temperatures in Canada have gone up 2.5 degrees Celsius, while the duration and intensity of cold spells have decreased.

In their report, published today in Environmental Research Letters, the researchers analyzed historical data from 142 weather stations to calculate the length of the annual outdoor skating season between 1951 and 2005. (They based this simply on whether the temperature was cold enough to keep ice frozen in the rink.) For a few places, the skating season has crept up earlier in the fall. For most areas, though, the length of the season has become much shorter.

The prairies—which include Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan—and southwest Canada saw the biggest temperature changes. If these trends are extrapolated into the future, the researchers predict that by the middle of the century, some of these regions will no longer have days cold enough to sustain an ice rink.

The last sentence of their study is sure to tug at the heartstrings of any Canadian hockey fan: “Wayne Gretzky learned to skate on a backyard skating rink; our results imply that such opportunities may not available to future generations of Canadian children.”

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