The uncertain future of the Rideau Canal Skateway was predicted 18 years ago
Despite being an expert in his field, Daniel Scott doesn’t like being right.
The professor and research chair at the University of Waterloo was commissioned by the National Capital Commission (NCC) in 2005 to prepare a report on the long-term effects of climate change on the Commission’s tourism and leisure activities.
While his modeling did not predict a season like the current one in which the skateway’s opening is in serious jeopardy, Scott cautioned that the average length of the Rideau Canal Skateway season would shorten as a result of climate change.
He predicted that season length would decrease from about 61 days in 2005 to about 43 to 52 days in 2020.
According to a detailed analysis commissioned by the NCC in 2021, the average season length is now around 46 days.
CBC asked Scott to consider the report he wrote in 2005.
“Looking back, I think our predictions were pretty reasonable,” Scott said. “We may have underestimated the change and we’ve seen this happen in other areas of climate change impact work.”
Average season length calculations are based on the number of days between opening and closing days and are tabulated from 1971, the first year the Rideau Canal Skateway officially opened.
Expected to get worse
Scott’s 2005 study contained this dire warning for the jewel of Winterlude.
“As the climate continues to warm, further reductions are expected. In the 2050s, the skateway is expected to be open between 20 and 49 days. In the 2080s, the warmest climate change scenario predicts the average skating season will be reduced to just one week, while the scenario with the least changes still predicts a 42-day season.
Scott is now commenting on those words, pointing out the need for more data, particularly ice thickness information, but overall he’s sticking with the forecast.
“Hopefully that’s not the future of the channel [Skateway] and we hope they return to years where they have 40+ days open so you can all take advantage of the channel,” he said. “But yes, this is certainly a glimpse into the longer-term future.”
Ice data is collected
While Scott’s prediction was based on 2005 data, the NCC now has 18 more years of data to confirm the impact of climate change on the skateway season.
In a 2021 technical study assessing the risks and impacts of climate change on the Rideau Canal Skateway, the NCC was told that season length has decreased by an average of 3.8 days per decade, largely due to the later start of the skating season.
In fact, the engineering firm that studied the problem even came up with an equation to demonstrate the downtrend: y = -0.3819x + 819.13, where x is the year and y is the season length in days.
To better understand the effects of warming, the NCC entered into a four-year partnership with Carleton University’s Department of Civil Engineering.
The first two years will be used to gather data on the Channel’s existing ice and snow cover using drones, remote sensing and probes, with this information then used in years three and four to develop possible solutions and adjustments.
One possible remedy, already being tested, is a slush cannon to help freeze the surface of the canal.
It’s not too late to change the future
According to Robert McLeman, professor of geography and environmental sciences at Wilfrid Laurier University, the only way to open an outdoor ice rink is to rely on technology. You also need a “magic temperature”.
McLeman helps run RinkWatch, a network of outdoor rink enthusiasts that collect data on temperatures and ice thickness, which they then share with environmental scientists.
McLeman says his modeling shows that the average daily temperature must be -5C or lower, a condition that will eventually become rare in southern half of Ontario.
“That means you can’t build an outdoor ice rink in most cases [southern] Ontario by 2050, which isn’t too far off,” he said.
For fans of the Rideau Canal Skateway, its projection is even worse.
“The canal will be one of the first places in Ontario to become non-skateable on a regular basis as we continue the warming trend we’re on,” McLeman said.
But both McLeman and Scott add that their climate predictions are not set in stone.
“This is still avoidable if we continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get climate change under control,” McLeman said. “But we’re running out of time.”