Pond Hockey and Climate Change

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 January 21, 2012 at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championship

Seven years ago, I discovered that a fountain of youth exists. It’s called the U.S. Pond Hockey Championship, and you can find it each January on Lake Nokomis in Minnesota.

I played in that inaugural tournament seven winters ago on a whim. The tournament was new, and a friend and alum of my college signed five of us up to play with him without telling us. After learning about it, we discussed it, said “what the hell,” and then booked plane tickets to Minneapolis.

The tournament was incredible, and we had a blast. The next year, the organizer of our team jumped up to the over-50 division, so I created a new team, Vermont Transit, which is named after the bus company that drove us around the Northeast during our college-hockey days. Since our birth, Vermont Transit – Six Wheels, One Bus – has not missed a single tournament.


The Vermont Transit pond hockey team, an international phenom

The tournament is a celebration of hockey purity. You play outdoors on a frozen lake in oppressively cold weather. Wind, bright sun, blowing snow, huge cracks in the ice, numb feet, frostbitten fingers; it’s, as the tournament bills itself, "the way the game was meant to be played."

You also get to be 8 years old again, where it’s socially acceptable to wear sweatpants all day and ask your friends on other teams if they won their games with a sense of urgency and concern as if the outcome of their game has a direct bearing on world peace. (Oh, and, after the games, there’s this thing called beer, and hockey players are typically quite fond of it.)

After the past few tournaments, I’ve considered writing a blog post about the threat climate change poses for the future of pond hockey (especially after the tournament two years ago, where unusually warm weather and rain conspired to cancel the last day of the tourney). But I’ve resisted writing such a piece, as I figured it would be dismissed as alarmist, sky-is-falling propaganda from an environmentalist.

But then I read an article last week about a new study in the Institute of Physics Environmental Research Letters, which found that warming temperatures in Canada threaten the future of outdoor hockey.

Needless to say, the article scared the living shit out of me piqued my interest.

The authors of the study looked at climate data in Canada from 1950 to 2005. They found that winter temperatures in Canada have increased by 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) since 1950, and that the “frequency, duration, and intensity of winter cold spells have decreased in most of Canada since the 1950s.”

They then looked at what effect warmer Canadian winter temperatures have had on the outdoor skating season in Canada. The news was not good:

We have provided evidence that the observed warming of winter temperatures in Canada has had a deleterious effect on the outdoor skating season. Many locations across the country have seen significant decreases in the length of the [outdoor skating season], as measured by the number of cold winter days conducive to the creation of rink ice.

Specifically, the authors focused on rinks built on bare ground or snow, not natural bodies of water. That said, their findings – warmer winter temperatures in Canada – are obviously relevant for those who, like me, yearn for frozen pond water in the winter. And, regarding such water, they note that previous studies have considered the historic changes of ice-on and ice-off dates of natural bodies of water, and most of these studies found that the annual “ice-free period” of the bodies of water surveyed lengthened over the period they were studied.

While the study focused on changes in the Canadian outdoor skating season that have already occurred, the authors grimly stated that, going forward, they “expect outdoor skating throughout Canada to be significantly negatively affected in the coming decades by continued anthropogenic global warming.”

And, to make the magnitude of their findings abundantly clear, the authors closed with an explicit warning:

The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of Canadian identity and culture. Wayne Gretzky learned to skate on a backyard skating rink; our results imply that such opportunities may not available to future generations of Canadian children.

Holy hockey puck.

Working for a large conservation organization with a major focus on fighting climate change, a lot of articles and studies about the problem of warming temperatures come across my desk. They are all impactful (polar bears, anyone?), but this one hit me like a Mike Tyson uppercut, as I simply cannot imagine losing the opportunity to reunite with Vermont Transit each January to play in the annual pond hockey tourney on Lake Nokomis.

It drives me crazy when I hear people ask, “Do you believe in climate change?” Such a question puts global warming in the same category as the tooth fairy. The next time you hear someone ask that, please reply, “Yes. Do you believe in gravity?”

But getting others to accept the reality of climate change is one thing, while getting people – and our government – to take meaningful action is another.

For the love of pond hockey and all the beauty associated with it, we can’t kick the can down the street any longer.


(And, speaking of hockey, check out this cool partnership between NRDC and the NHL.)