Backyard science

In Canada, a grassroots project is highlighting climate change by focusing on the country’s most treasured cultural possession: skating rinks.

Some months ago, a group of environmental students came to notice that Canadian winters had changed. There was less ice, warmer temperatures. What was worse, it affected the skating rinks, which are about as sacred in Canada as football pitches are in Brazil. According to a study by Montreal scientists, there would be fewer days where skating was possible. Some regions, they said, would end up with no rinks at all.

The students, of Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, south-east Canada, teamed up with a couple of professors to create RinkWatch. They set up a website where, on a Google map, people could pin down their local ice rink. The concept was simple: for each winter day people’s rink was in condition for skating, they would drop a pin. In this way, the students could track the state of North America’s ice rinks, and detect trends and changes: all against the backdrop of global warming.


The pull of the project, of course, would always be people’s interest in skating. “Outdoor skating is part of what we Canadians are; it’s our culture,” says Robert McLeman, associate professor of geography and environmental studies at the university.It’s even on the back of our five-dollar bill, so it seemed like a natural thing to get people to record their rink conditions on our website.”

The group launched the project on 8 January this year. They had no budget. All they did was float a press release. The reaction was remarkable. Within 48 hours, they had made it into a Montreal newspaper, as well as a TV morning show in Toronto. Overwhelming traffic crashed the website several times. “Within 48 hours I started getting phone calls from the media,” says McLeman. “One was a reporter from Montreal, who told me: ‘Don’t you realise what you’ve done? You’ve linked talking about the weather to talking about skating. You’ve linked the two most important things Canadians do and brought them together under a scientific umbrella. It’s perfect.’ So the reaction has been very satisfying.”


The interest has sustained. In late March, the site tracked nearly 1,000 ice rinks and had reached 1,300 registered users. Members demanded a forum, where they now talk about ice rinks: childhood memories, anecdotes, tips and updates. The debate is lively. The key to it all, says McLeman, is that it touches upon people’s lives. “We talk about climate change, and how it affects polar bears and glaciers,” he explains. “These problems are real, but your average person doesn’t encounter them in day-to-day life. In Northern America skating rings are something we see regularly. And so by talking about the changes to these, we can start a public dialogue.”

McLeman has great hopes for the project. He says that in 10 years time, the aim is for RinkWatch to produce reliable data of scientific value. “Weather stations are great, but they’re few and far between,” he says. “We’re look at what’s going on in people’s backyards. Hopefully this encourages people to say ‘Oh, I get it now: I start to see the connection between changes in the climate and my well-being’. And that’s the point: to use it as a springboard to get people generally engaged in environmental science.”

Visit the project at

Photos: Elena Elisseeva, S.K Photography, Wendy Nero [all via].