Outdoor ice rinks are being replaced by roller rinks in many European cities as they struggle with their costs and environmental impacts in a warming world. But will Canadian cities face similar decisions? And what can be done to keep outdoor skating alive?
Here’s a closer look.
It’s been a warm winter across much of Canada, making slush of the skating season in many places — including Ottawa, where it was announced last week that the iconic Rideau Canal Skateway would not open this year, for the first time since it was first cleared for skating in 1971.
Earlier that week, in Atlantic Canada, speed skating practices for Canada Winter Games athletes at the Halifax oval were delayed by heavy rain and temperatures of 8 C that left its surface a large puddle. Meanwhile, the only rinks open in Montreal for much of the winter were refrigerated ones, also known as “artificial ice rinks.”
WATCH | Skating cancelled on Rideau Canal:
European, U.S. cities ditch outdoor ice rinks
In other parts of the world, below-zero winter temperatures are already unreliable, and chillers, which require lots of energy to make artificial ice, are crucial.
Many cities in more temperate climates decided to skip their traditional winter ice rinks altogether this year. In some places — such as San Jose, Calif., Monaco, Bad Neuenahr, Germany, and a number of French cities, including Tours and Gembloux — they were replaced by roller rinks. Another French community, La Test-de-Buch went for a synthetic rink made of plastic.
All blamed high energy costs and many European cities cited the energy crisis linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
That said, the demise of seasonal outdoor rinks is a trend that’s been heating up in France for a number of years, where eco-concious municipal governments have been questioning the environmental and financial sustainability of ice skating in its warming climate.
Martin Cohen, the deputy mayor of Tours, France, in charge of the environment, told the Guardian, “It seemed a bit of an aberration to have an outdoor ice rink when the temperature here at Christmas has been 10-15 C for several years.”
WATCH | Tours, France, promotes its Christmas roller rink
How climate change impacts outdoor ice rinks — and vice versa
In order for a natural outdoor ice rink to survive, the average temperature needs to be below -5 C, says Robert McLeman, professor of environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. He’s also one of the principal investigators of RinkWatch, a citizen science program that tracks the length of the skating season for outdoor rinks across the country.
While this is not yet a problem in the Prairies, McLeman said January temperatures are now near that -5 C threshold in southern Ontario, the St. Lawrence Valley and Atlantic Canada.
Up until now, many communities in those regions have relied on natural ice rinks for outdoor skating in winter. But McLeman says he’s getting more inquiries about when they need to make the transition to refrigerated rinks.
“One of the challenges is the fact that refrigerated rinks are far more expensive,” he said. “They also use refrigerants and energy, which contribute to the root source of this, which is greenhouse gas emissions.”
Because of the higher expense, communities can afford fewer of them, making rinks less accessible, especially outside Canada’s biggest cities, he acknowledged. “Smaller governments with smaller budgets may simply not have the means to make that transition.”
Even some big cities have been finding it a challenge. Montreal promised in 2016 to build refrigerated ice rinks around the city, but they ended up costing millions more than expected, delaying construction.
The cost will also go up as the climate warms further. Refrigeration systems need more energy to maintain the ice the warmer it gets, McLeman said. “And there will be days when it’s just simply too warm even for the compressors to keep it cold enough to skate on.”
Canadian cities look for possible outdoor skating solutions
Still, many communities see outdoor ice skating as an important investment.
Shari Lichterman, acting city manager for Mississauga, Ont., said the pandemic drove people outdoors. “And there’s higher demand than ever, really, for outdoor activities.”
For that reason, the city, which has relied largely on natural ice rinks and indoor ice arenas until now, is looking into adding more artificial outdoor rinks.
One of the locations that’s being considered for a new refrigerated or synthetic skating trail is along the Credit River, which has traditionally been a popular natural skating rink. On the February day that Lichterman spoke with CBC News, water could be seen welling up along the banks of the river, and the ice was clearly not ready to hold the weight of skaters.
Lichterman said the city is taking climate change into consideration for all its park’s amenities now. “As we look at the winter and we look at ice, you know, we really have to look at synthetic surfaces, certainly refrigerated surfaces — it’s very difficult.”
She acknowledged that those have a high cost to maintain.
North Vancouver’s more sustainable solution
While some parts of Canada can expect a future where much of the winter is rainy and above-freezing, and are wondering how to prepare, that winter climate is already a reality in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
And yet, a few years ago, the City of North Vancouver decided to build its largest outdoor rink, right on the waterfront. How they built it could offer some ideas for other cities.
Mayor Linda Buchanan said the city wanted to draw people to its outdoor plaza in the Shipyards District all year round, even in the winter, and provide opportunities for activities where they could connect with other people outdoors.
Karen Magnuson, the city’s chief engineer, acknowledged that creating an outdoor skating rink in North Vancouver’s temperate climate was challenging.
The rink was designed with a retractable roof to protect the ice from the sun and rain.
But a key strategy was to use a CO2 chiller to cool the system. Magnuson said it’s “incredibly efficient” at removing heat from the ice via a web of pipes under the ice surface, compared to other kinds of refrigerants and refrigeration systems.
That efficiency is boosted even further by feeding waste heat removed from the ice into a local district heating system. That provides hot water and space heating to local buildings — enough to heat the equivalent of 43 homes — offsetting the use of natural gas.
Magnuson said the result is the Shipyards rink is two-to-three times more efficient than a standard ice rink.
The outdoor skate plaza, which opened in 2019 but was shut down for a couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will welcome skaters until the end of March. The ice can only be maintained when the temperature is below 15 C.
LISTEN | Ice skating into a changing climate:
What On Earth54:08Ice skating into a changing climate
In the summer, the plaza hosts a splash park and roller skating events, and the ice rink’s cooling loop is used to air condition nearby buildings such as the Polygon Gallery and the Pipe Shop event venue, Magnuson said.
“I think it’s really important for cities to provide places for the community to come together and play,” she added. “We just need to make sure that when we’re creating these entities, we’re doing it as efficiently as possible.”