Climate scientists call on hockey enthusiasts for help
For years, scientists have been tracking ice in western Hudson Bay – when the ice forms in fall, when it starts to break up in the spring, thickness – in order to determine how climate change is affecting the health of the Hudson Bay ecosystem, including polar bears. Polar bears need the sea ice of the Hudson Bay to successfully hunt ringed seals through the winter. They rely on that stored fat to last them through the summer. Climate change has already led to the ice forming later in the fall by several weeks over the last 3 decades, and breaking up earlier in the spring. This shortened feeding season has resulted in skinnier bears, fewer cubs born per bear, and lower survival for the young. It also leads to more bear-human interactions, as hungry bears wander closer to towns and garbage dumps searching for food. Bad news for bears and people, in other words.
Two polar bears walking near Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada. (C) WWF/Geoff York
Now, scientists are studying ice conditions a little closer to home to assess how climate change is affecting a different, and increasingly endangered, species - the backyard shinny player. Based on past data and models of the future, scientists are warning that climate change will lead to fewer outdoor skating days in Canada. In fact, in some areas of the country they warn that there will be no more backyard rinks at all. Rinkwatch.org, an innovative project led by scientists at Wilfred Laurier University, asks outdoor rink enthusiasts from all over the world to record the location of their rink and all the days that the rink is skate-able. Knowing only about what’s happening to your rink in your backyard tells you little more than what the recent weather has been like. But that information collected over several years, and added to information about thousands of other rinks across North America – well, that gives us some insight to wider trends like climate change.
© www.martinbeaulieu.ca / WWF-Canon
To me, there are two really interesting aspects to this project. First, it’s part of an emerging trend toward using “citizen scientists”. The growth of social media allows scientists to tap into the observations of thousands and even millions of people around the world to “crowd-source” information. When designed well, It can be an effective – and cheap- addition to (but not a replacement for) traditional scientific methods.
Second, this unique collaboration between scientists and hockey enthusiasts reminds us that climate change isn’t just a remote, future problem for species like polar bears. Climate change is a serious threat to all of us, wherever we are – to our economy, to our way of life, and to many of the traditions that we hold most dear. I don’t want to even consider a future where outdoor hockey is not part of the winter experience for Canadian children.
If you’re involved in an outdoor rink, either in your backyard or a local community centre, check out Rinkwatch, and consider becoming a citizen scientist helping document, and help avoid, the effects of climate change.