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Backyard rinks now labs

Scientists asking 'hosers' for data on how climate changes home skating ponds

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Build a hockey rink, save the world.

It's a Canadian thing, eh?

Instead of tracking climate change by measuring faraway glacier reductions in the Arctic Circle, how about forming a database of hundreds of icemakers-turned-citizen-scientists to track the impact of environmental evolution in their own backyard?

That's the goal of three scientists from Wilfrid Laurier University who are looking at you, Winnipeg.

"We'd like more Manitobans," said Robert McLeman, associate professor of geography and environmental studies. "Can't have more rinks in Saskatchewan than Manitoba, right?"

It's called Rink Watch, an effort to rally amateur "hosers" from around North America to register on a website (, pinpoint their location on a map and input data on when they were able to complete their outdoor rink, the conditions throughout the winter and when the backyard rink becomes... a backyard.

"If we could pool that data across North America, we could come up with an interesting story about a changing environment," McLeman said. "They're already flooding and skating. Why not report on it?

"Most of us will never see a glacier," he added. "Most people won't see a polar bear, at least not around Winnipeg. But the neighborhood rink is something you can observe and see changes from one year to the next."

McLeman and his colleagues launched Rink Watch with modest expectations, but the ice men cometh, to the point where the website crashed.

"We've gone from zero rinks to 800," he reported. They've also got a Facebook page and Twitter feed linked to the site.

But folks who registered -- from the Yukon to Idaho and some 15 and counting in Manitoba -- didn't want to just input data, they wanted to communicate.

So the researchers upgraded their site as a forum for exchanging tips on building rinks, posting photos and stories of their childhood on outdoor ice.

"We've touched on something everyone can relate to," McLeman said, noting the concept has hit a "cultural nerve."

But here's where hockey passion meets science.

Last year, a study released by United Kingdom-based IOP Publishing cautioned that outdoor hockey in Canada was threatened by climate change.

"We were able to see that, in general, the rinks were being opened later and later over the last... 50 years, and secondly, that the length of the season has also shortened by... one or two, sometimes three weeks," Larence Mysak, a co-author of the report and a professor at Montreal's McGill University, told reporters.

In addition, according to Environment Canada, the winter of 2011-12 was the third-warmest in Canada in 65 years.

McLeman conceded the Rink Watch project isn't a "rigorous scientific study," but it might make the effects of climate change more accessible to not just the hockey parent who builds a backyard rink, but to their children.

"We'd like to see more families, especially families with children, getting involved in citizen science and outdoor education," McLeman said. "If Rink Watch can inspire them to do that, that would be our greatest success."

In the meantime, the researchers hope their user numbers will continue to rise and participants will stay involved in the project long-term.

And then?

"We wouldn't mind going international," McLeman said. "Maybe Scandinavia and Russia. They have a lot of outdoor rinks there, too."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 B1

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