Unpredictable weather impacts long-standing traditions on outdoor rinks

With the start of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games just days away, there’s renewed attention around the relationship between climate change and winter sports. As the planet warms, beloved pastimes that rely on the snow and ice face a growing threat. Among them: outdoor skating. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With the start of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games just days away, there's renewed attention around the relationship between climate change and winter sports.

    As the planet warms, beloved pastimes that rely on the snow and ice face a growing threat, among them, outdoor skating.

    John Yang reports.

  • John Yang:

    As the sun rises over South Minneapolis, the sounds of hockey echo through the biting cold, skates slicing through the ice, sticks slapping for the opening face-off, pucks ring off the boards. On this day, 200-acre Lake Nokomis is the gathering spot, not for beachgoers or boaters, but for the rink rats of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.

    Now in its 17-year, the two-weekend event draws thousands of players from around the world to Minnesota, the self-proclaimed state of hockey, where outdoor skating is practically a way of life.

  • Erik Sureda, Minnesota:

    It's something that's just embedded with us in this area and in our lives, especially, if you experience it once, you don't want to stop.

  • Brian Johnson, Minnesota:

    Yes, I can't feel my toes, my hands. I don't know what's happening up here on my head, yes, so very cold. But, honestly, once you get out there and you get moving with the boys, it's a lot of fun. Don't really even think about it.

  • John Yang:

    It is cold. It's noon, and the temperature's only broken zero degrees Fahrenheit. That's just about perfect conditions for good, skateable ice. But, even in Minnesota, in mid-January, that's no longer a sure thing.

    Jim Dahline is the commissioner of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.

  • Jim Dahline, Commissioner, U.S. Pond Hockey Championships:

    The biggest thing that causes us anxiety every year is really the weather conditions. We have had 40 below. We have had 40. It's just been incredibly unpredictable.

  • John Yang:

    In 2016, the event was postponed due to warm temperatures. And, even when it was rescheduled, the ice was so soft that some players didn't skate across it. They trudged.

  • Jim Dahline:

    Those types of events are scary and disappointing for the conditions of what we could have around us, if we — if things don't change a little bit for what we remember of winter being like.

  • Robert McLeman, Wilfrid Laurier University:

    The number of high-quality outdoor skating days has been declining, especially in the last 20 or 30 years.

  • John Yang:

    Robert McLeman is a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, where outdoor skating is so ingrained in the culture that an image of pond hockey was once on the $5 dollar bill.

  • Robert McLeman:

    Two things that Canadians love to talk about are the weather and hockey or skating. And so we thought, well, if we could come up with an environmental science project that links those two things to a broader understanding of climate change, then we'd have something.

  • John Yang:

    So, in 2013, McLeman and his colleagues launched RinkWatch.org, a site where people across North America can submit information about conditions at their local pond or backyard rink.

    They used that data to examine skateability trends in the original six cities of the National Hockey League, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York, and Toronto. In all of them, the number of good skating days has fallen since the 1940s. The drop was most pronounced in Toronto.

    In the early 1940s, the city had almost 60 high-quality skating days. Two years ago, there were only about 20. And McLeman's research projects, things will be even worse by the end of the century.

    If these seasons get shorter, what's the impact? What's the effect?

  • Robert McLeman:

    I would liken it to, for example, if you lived in a beach community, and the water became polluted, and you could no longer go swimming. I mean, you're still living at a beach, but, suddenly, it's not the same sort of relationship with nature, and you lose something as a result of that.

  • John Yang:

    Recently, McLeman's team recruited rink sentinels in strategic locations to collect even more detailed data on things like temperature and precipitation.

    Kaija Hupila, who lives near Madison, Wisconsin, is one of them. She grew up in Northern Minnesota and fondly remembers skating on frozen lakes with her family. For the past two winters, she's built a 25-by-50-foot rink in her back yard, hoping to give her children a similar experience.

  • Kaija Hupila, RinkWatch.Org Rink Sentinel:

    It's really hard to feel in your gut what the planet warming a few degrees a century actually means for you.

    I mean, you know in your head, this is bad, but you don't really see the immediate impact of it. But when I think about as I'm entering data into the spreadsheet, if the conclusion of this is that we're going to have a shorter skating season or potentially no skating season in my lifetime or my kids' lifetimes, that's a really sad prospect to consider.

  • John Yang:

    As climate change chips away at the outdoor skating season, backyard rink builders aren't the only ones feeling the effects.

    Hockey was born on outdoor rinks. And NHL greats like Wayne Gretzky trace their careers to days skating in their childhood backyards.

  • Andrew Ference, Former NHL Player:

    I played hours upon hours upon hours outside.

  • John Yang:

    Andrew Ference spent 16 seasons in the NHL and helped the Boston Bruins win the 2011 Stanley Cup. He's long been concerned about the in environment. As a pro, he convinced hundreds of fellow players to buy carbon credits to offset emissions from their frequent travel.

    Ference now works for the NHL on a number of issues, including sustainability. He says the most important part of the NHL Green Initiative is what the 32 teams are doing, like improving efficiency at their indoor ice arenas, some located in Florida, Texas and Nevada.

  • Andrew Ference:

    Hard to run a business with very minimal impact, especially if you're trying to keep ice frozen in a giant rink that has a concert the next day and a basketball game that night.

    It's up to us to say, how can we do it better, while still running an 82-game season and still playing in these cities? And so you look at, how do we run the most efficient building, how do we create the least amount of waste, use the least amount of water, have the smallest footprint?

  • John Yang:

    The NHL was criticized last year for partnering with the maker of an ice refrigerant that has a higher global warming potential than ammonia, which is used to cool many professional and community rinks.

    In a letter, the league said the refrigerant never has been presented as the only solution, and that the vast majority of rinks now using it had previously used refrigerants with an even higher global warming potential.

    The threat of climate change is about more than just future generations of hockey players like Andrew Ference.

  • Andrew Ference:

    The more important part is the social aspect of what outdoor ice is. It's not it's not about developing NHL players, so that you're out there and you're just doing your drills and honing all your skills so you can make the NHL.

    Like, you're out there messing around with friends.

  • John Yang:

    Back in Minnesota, the prospect of life without this pastime is too much to bear.

    If this were to be lost, if you couldn't have pond hockey, couldn't skate outdoors?

  • Jim Dahline:

    You know, I don't — I don't know that that's something I want to think about, to be honest to you.

  • John Yang:

    So, on this day, they will just enjoy the cold.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Minneapolis.

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