The Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa — the world’s largest natural ice skating rink and a part of a UNESCO World Heritage site — may not open this winter as relatively warm temperatures in the Canadian capital put outdoor activities and other long-standing traditions on thin ice.
If the skateway remains shuttered through the season — which typically runs from January through early March — it will be the first winter in a half century that Ottawans miss gliding on the 4.8-mile-long ice path. (The entire canal is 126-miles-long.) The delay has raised fears in a region familiar with biting cold that climate change is whittling away at not just glaciers and coastlines, but also culture and ordinary life.
Skateway staff said that “persistent above average seasonal temperatures and current ice conditions” have delayed the opening of the rink. Ottawa’s National Capital Commission, which operates the skateway, said that it can only open when there is “good quality” ice that is at least 12 inches thick. To reach such conditions, there must be 10 to 14 consecutive days of temperatures between -4 and 14 degrees Fahrenheit. But as of early February, the ice on the canal surface was “dangerously thin,” the NCC said.
With winters in Ottawa forecast to shorten by five weeks by the 2050s, the NCC is aware of the threat to the Skateway. In a 2005 report commissioned by the NCC, a University of Waterloo professor predicted the average Skateway season would decrease from about 61 days to between 43 and 52 in the 2020s. More recently, the NCC partnered with Carleton University to study the Skateway’s vulnerabilities to climate change and find ways to build resilience.
“The Rideau Canal and festivals that take place across Canada to celebrate our winter life are woven into the psyche, rituals and experiences of citizens,” said Jay Johnson, a kinesiology professor at the University of Manitoba. Climate change is “eroding” activities, such as playing backyard hockey and meeting friends at public outdoor rinks, that “symbolize the Canadian experience,” he added.
In Vermont, gliding along on natural ice
For many, the Rideau Canal Skateway represents more than an average hockey rink. In love letters to the canal, published by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper to mark Valentine’s Day, locals described it as a “symbol of the city, and a “place of freedom and fresh air.” One writer likened it to a “friend that is changing, slowly melting away.”
The skateway was created in 1971 when a team of NCC employees used brooms and shovels to clear a small section on the ice over the canal. Over time, the skateway grew and today, its surface area is the equivalent of 90 Olympic-size ice rinks. It averages about 21,000 visits a day, Canadian media reported last year.
In 2005, the skateway was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest naturally frozen ice rink in the world. Two years later, the canal, which was one of the first designed for steam-powered ships, became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The skateway requires active maintenance, with staff monitoring the thickness and composition of ice as well as the weight — whether it’s people or snow — on the ice’s surface. “Not all ice is created equal,” the NCC said.
This winter, the concern is that there won’t be enough ice created at all.
Johnson, the professor, hopes the “unprecedented” closure of the skateway can be a warning. Climate change “has been sneaking up on us so stealthily,” he said.
“These examples should feel like bludgeons that hopefully capture our full attention.”