Backyard Hockey Rinks, Citizen Scientists, and Climate Change

Sunrise over Lake Nokomis at the 2013 U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.


Photo by Jeff Cashman

A year ago, I wrote a blog entry about pond hockey and climate change. In that post, I discussed an alarming new study that found that warming temperatures threaten the future of outdoor hockey.

I also wrote about my pond hockey team, Vermont Transit (Six Wheels, One Bus), and our annual pilgrimage to Lake Nokomis in Minnesota for the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. We returned to Lake Nokomis last month, where we, again, paid homage to the gods of pond hockey and impressed them with our potent application of dazzle and poetry.

Over the past year, I’ve thought quite a bit about pond hockey and climate change. And, frankly, how could I not?

2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous United States. Crushing drought, threatened species, Hurricane Sandy. Numerous presidential-election debates with nary a question about global warming. Civil disobedience in our nation’s capitol over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline two weeks ago.

The evidence, public outrage, and myopic inaction by our elected leaders continue to mount. We dabble on the margins, while the tidal wave of climate change grows ever larger.

It’s daunting, and it’s scary. It threatens life as we’ve known it. And, maybe, given its immensity, that’s why I think about pond hockey.

The game is simple and straightforward. Hockey on a frozen pond. Not terribly important in the grand scheme of things. But I love it, and I always have.

Down the street from where I grew up outside Chicago, there was a pond, and it froze in the winter. My brothers and I spent countless hours playing hockey on that pond. Andy, Dan, and I endured some epic battles out there, and my nostalgia for those days on the pond with my brothers runs deep.

With the overwhelming reality of climate change, I guess that focusing on something simple and tangible like pond hockey is a natural response. We stand to lose so much, and thus worrying about pond hockey is my way of filtering this massive, overpowering, cataclysmic nightmare into something personal and understandable.

Which brings me to (if you haven’t already jumped out your window) some good news to share: a new citizen-scientist project called RinkWatch was launched this winter, and it seeks to track the progression of climate change by collecting data from the many backyard rinks that are built each year in Canada and the U.S.

Created by a team of geographers from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, RinkWatch asks backyard-rink-builders to record data about their rinks on the RinkWatch website (i.e., the date the rink could first be used, the number of weeks the ice is solid enough for skating, the last date the rink could be skated on, etc.). The information collected will then be used to monitor the advancement of climate change going forward.

The scientists explain their goals for the project on the website:

We want you to pin the location of your rink on our map, and then each winter record every day that your rink is skateable. Think of it as a rink conditions logbook. We will gather up all the information from all the backyard rinks and use it to track the changes in our climate. The RinkWatch website will give you regular updates on the results. You will be able to compare the number of skating days at your rink with rinks elsewhere, and find out who is having the best winter for skating this year.

You may not think of it as science, but that’s exactly what you will be doing – making regular, systematic observations about environmental change in your own back yard. You will be joining a growing league of citizen-scientists from across North America. Is the backyard skating rink an endangered species? The first step in finding out for sure is to gather the statistics. If we want skate outside in the future, we have to find what’s going on today. So please, join RinkWatch, and help prevent backyard rinklessness.

RinkWatch is a great, simple way for outdoor-hockey-enthusiasts to help scientists monitor climate change. And, for bragging rights, participants can upload photos of their frozen backyard creations for others to see.

While this novel project won’t be able to suck noxious emissions out of our atmosphere, it will provide important data about climate change in the years ahead. And, in doing so, it will get more people to consider the stark reality of global warming.

As for me, I don’t have a backyard rink, but I do have my cherished memories of playing hockey with my brothers on a frozen pond outside Chicago many years ago – Andy, the oldest, and I sending Dan, the youngest, to retrieve a puck that had slid down to the thin-ice side of the pond; our dog, Bailey, getting into the action and chasing the puck, which drove us crazy; our parents, cheering us on, pleading with us to break for lunch, desperately hoping we return home with our limbs intact.

And I’m hopeful pond hockey will endure.

Brothers on Pond.JPG

On the pond with my brothers. From left to right: Andy, Dan, me.

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