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What the Rideau Canal’s ice woes tell us for Canada’s winter sport future

Click to play video: 'What’s the future of Canadian winter sports?'
What’s the future of Canadian winter sports?
WATCH: What's the future of Canadian winter sports? – Dec 8, 2023

When Ottawa residents watch National Capital Commission crews working on the ice on the iconic Rideau Canal, they know winter is coming.

On Tuesday, the NCC put out an alert for residents to keep off the ice, as winter is not quite here yet.

“Winter is almost here, but not quite yet and the public is asked to remain off the Rideau Canal, as the surface of the Skateway remains dangerously thin. Signs have been posted at access points to advise the public of this danger,” the NCC said in a notice.

The average skating season on the canal is 50 days but has been getting shorter over the years as temperatures rise. Last year, for the first time in the Skateway’s 52-year history, there was no skating season on the canal.

Experts believe the fate of the Rideau Canal Skateway is a portent for all winter sports in Canada.

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Daniel Scott, a professor at University of Waterloo, said he had expected the day would come where the canal would not freeze, but he did not expect the day to arrive until the 2030s.

“Last year sort of shocked everyone, including myself and others who had looked 15 years ago at the future of the Skateway and expected the seasons to get shorter and shorter and potentially be problematic in the 2030s,” he said. “We never thought they wouldn’t be able to open at all in the 2020s.”

Scott said the pattern of shortening skating seasons has been developing over time.

“It has been getting shorter over the last two decades and a bit more variable year to year. So, you can get a good year followed up by a couple of bad years,” he said.

What is going on?

He said there are many reasons behind the Skateway season getting shorter.

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In years when Ottawa sees an early snowfall, the wet and damp snow might insulate the layers of ice below it, which is too thin for the NCC to run snow-clearing equipment.

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The NCC says it needs 10 to 14 consecutive days of temperatures between -10°C and -20°C to get out there and prepare the ice. Last year, that did not happen, with temperatures mostly hovering around what Scott calls a “freeze-thaw cycle.”

Scott said Canada’s entire winter sports industry will have to contend with warming temperatures.

“So a lot of the outdoor activities that Canadians rely on…outdoor skating rinks and things like that…their seasons are getting shorter and temperature warming.

He said early winter and spring, in particular, will get fewer winter sports days. A report authored by Scott and his colleagues Natalie Knowles and Robert Steiger in June of this year predicted that ski resorts in Canada would have to rely more and more on machine-made snow.

“The results demonstrate an increase in snowmaking requirements (depth of machine-made snow) from baseline levels across all regional markets and under all climate change scenarios for the 2050s,” the report read.

Click to play video: 'Canadians should expect warmer winter across country: Environment Canada'
Canadians should expect warmer winter across country: Environment Canada

The report said that Ontario is projected to have the highest requirement for machine-made snow, while Quebec would be the least reliant on it.

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Ski resorts are a crucial part of Canada’s tourism industry, with 237 ski areas currently operating across the country hosting an average of 18.2 million visitors a year, including 2.7 million international visitors. Overall, the industry employs over 35,000 people and rakes in around $4 billion annually.

“I think the anybody that sort of says that climate change isn’t going to affect winter sports is perhaps a bit off track,” said Paul Pinchbeck, president and CEO of the Canadian Ski Council. “We, in the ski industry, look at climate change as a serious threat.”

Is there any hope for winter sports?

Pinchbeck said many in the industry are investing in technologies and adaption strategies already, including more investment in snowmaking and snow-farming, which is the practice of saving snow for days that are too warm.

However, he said smaller ski operators who are not going to be able to afford those adaptation technologies will be hit the hardest.

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Click to play video: 'Alberta ski resorts kick off a fresh season'
Alberta ski resorts kick off a fresh season

Christopher Nicolson, president of Canada West Ski Areas Association, said many ski areas are now diversifying their businesses to also include more summertime activities.

“That year-round diversification, where skiers have moved into offering lift access, mountain biking, other kinds of sightseeing and other kinds of attractions in other months – that’s a big part of the entire economic business plan as well,” he said.

According to Pinchbeck, skiing season in Canada may get more erratic.

“We’re probably looking at more variable weather conditions. I think it’ll be still be some time until we have a truly shorter season. We’ll, on average, have that optimal 100-to-110-day season. But we will have more weather variation.”

The UN has said that 2023 was the earth’s hottest year on record. According to Daniel Scott, some years provide a window into what the Canadian winter will look like in the future.

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“Whether you’re a farmer or whether you’re managing tourism assets, one of the things that we’ve said for quite sometime is look, 500 km or 1000 km south. That’s what your winter will look like in a couple of decades,” he said.

Scott added, “For our region, the Waterloo region, our spatial analog is southern Ohio. And they call it mud season. They don’t call it winter.”

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