European cities are turning outdoor ice rinks into roller rinks. How will ours adapt?

Outdoor ice rinks are being replaced by ice rinks in many European cities as they struggle with their costs and environmental impact in a warming world. But will Canadian cities face similar decisions? And what can be done to keep outdoor skating alive?

Here’s a closer look.

It’s been a warm winter across much of Canada, resulting in skating season in many places – including Ottawa, where it was announced last week that the iconic Rideau Canal Skateway will not open this yearfor the first time since it was first issued for skating in 1971.

Earlier that week, in Atlantic Canada, speed skating practices for Canada Winter Games athletes at the Halifax oval were delayed due to heavy rain and temperatures of 8 Celsius which left a large puddle on its surface. Meanwhile, the The only ice rinks that were open in Montreal for much of the winter were refrigeratorsalso known as “artificial ice rinks”.

WATCHES | Rideau Canal Skating Cancelled:

Warm weather ice skating on the Rideau Canal

One of Ottawa’s most iconic winter activities — skating on the Rideau Canal — may not happen this year due to unseasonably warm winter weather.

European and American cities are abandoning outdoor ice rinks

In other parts of the world, sub-zero winter temperatures are already unreliable and cold storage facilities, which require a lot of energy to produce artificial ice, are vital.

Many cities in more temperate climates have decided to skip traditional winter rinks altogether this year. In some places — like San Jose, California., Monaco, Bad Neuenahr, Germanyand a number of French cities, incl Tours and Gembloux — were replaced by roller tracks. Another French community, La Test-de-Buch went for a synthetic rink made of plastic.

All blamed high energy costs and many European cities reported it energy crisis linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That said, the collapse of seasonal outdoor ice rinks is a trend that has been building in France for many years now, with green municipal authorities questioning its environmental and economic viability.ce skating in its warm climate.

Martin Cohen, Vice-Mayor of Tours, France, responsible for the environment, he told the Guardian“It seemed a bit of an aberration to have an outdoor ice rink when the temperature here at Christmas has been 10-15C for several years.”

WATCHES | Tours, France, is promoting its Christmas ice rink

How climate change is affecting outdoor ice rinks — and vice versa

For a natural outdoor ice rink to survive, the average temperature needs to be below -5 C, says Robert McLeman, a professor of environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. He is also one of the principal investigators of RinkWatch, a citizen science program that tracks the length of the skating season for outdoor rinks across the country.

While that’s not yet a problem on the prairies, McLeman said January temperatures are now close to that -5 C mark in southern Ontario, the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Canada.

Until now, many communities in these areas relied on natural rinks for outdoor skating in the winter. But McLeman says he’s getting more inquiries about when to make the transition to refrigerated rinks.

“One of the challenges is the fact that refrigerated rinks are much more expensive,” he said. “They also use refrigerants and energy, which contribute to the main source of this, which is greenhouse gas emissions.”

People are skating at night with the colored lights of a giant wheel in the background.
People skate at the ice rink in Montreal’s Old Port in January 2022. Montreal promised in 2016 to build refrigerated ice rinks across the city, but they ended up costing millions more than expected, delaying construction. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

Because of the higher costs, communities can afford less of them, making rinks less accessible, especially outside of Canada’s biggest cities, he admitted. “Smaller governments with smaller budgets may simply not have the means to make that transition.”

Even some big cities find it a challenge. Montreal promised in 2016 to build refrigerated ice rinks across the city, but they ended up costing millions more than expected, delaying construction.

Costs will also increase as the climate warms further. Cooling systems need more energy to keep the ice as warm as possible, McLeman said. “And there will be days when it’s just too hot even for the compressors to keep it cool enough to skate.”

Canadian cities are looking for potential outdoor skating solutions

However, many communities see ice skating as a significant investment.

Shari Lichterman, acting city manager for Mississauga, Ont., said the pandemic has driven people outdoors. “And there’s more demand than ever, really, for outdoor activities.”

For this reason, the city, which has relied heavily on natural rinks and indoor ice spaces until now, is considering adding more artificial outdoor ice rinks.

Workers in Windsor, Ont., move sections of synthetic ice after a test run in 2014. It’s one of the options cities are considering as the climate gets too warm for natural ice on outdoor rinks. (Vince Robinet/CBC News)

One of the locations being considered for a new skating or synthetic skating trail is along the Credit River, which has traditionally been a popular natural ice rink. On the February day that Lichterman spoke with CBC News, water could be seen gushing over the river’s banks, and the ice was clearly not ready to hold the weight of the skaters.

Lichterman said the city is taking climate change into account for all of its park amenities now. “As we look at winter and we look at ice, you know, we really have to look at synthetic surfaces, certainly cooler surfaces – it’s very difficult.”

He recognized that they have high maintenance costs.

North Vancouver’s more sustainable solution

While some parts of Canada can look forward to a future where most of the winter is wet and above freezing, and wonder how to prepare, this winter climate is already a reality in BC’s Lower Mainland.

And yet, a few years ago, the city of North Vancouver decided to build its largest outdoor ice rink, right on the waterfront. How they built it could provide some ideas for other cities.

Mayor Linda Buchanan said the city wanted to draw people to its outdoor plaza in the Shipyards District year-round, even in the winter, and provide opportunities for activities where they could connect with other people outdoors.

Skaters go between potted trees and a railing in an ice rink.  Behind them is a harbor with container cranes.
Skaters enjoy the Shipyards ice rink on the North Vancouver waterfront. The outdoor ice rink has a retractable roof to protect it from the sun and rain. CO2 refrigeration is used to create the ice. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Karen Magnuson, the city’s chief engineer, acknowledged that creating an outdoor ice rink in North Vancouver’s temperate climate was a challenge.

The rink was designed with a retractable roof to protect the ice from the sun and rain.

But a key strategy was to use a CO2 cooler to cool the system. Magnuson said it is “incredibly efficient” at removing heat from the ice through a network of pipes beneath the surface of the ice, compared to other types of refrigerants and cooling systems.

This performance is further enhanced by feeding the waste heat removed from the ice local district heating system. This provides hot water and space heating to local buildings – enough to heat the equivalent of 43 homes – offsetting the use of natural gas.

A woman in safety gear looks at pipes in the cold room
Karen Magnuson, chief engineer for the City of North Vancouver, examines part of the cooling system for the Shipyards rink, which uses CO2 to cool the ice. The waste heat is fed into the area’s energy system to heat local buildings. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Magnuson said the result is that the Shipyards rink is two to three times more efficient than a standard rink.

The outdoor skate plaza, which opened in 2019 but was closed for a few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will welcome skaters until the end of March. Ice can only be kept when the temperature is below 15 C.

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In the summer, the plaza hosts a splash park and skating events, and the rink’s cooling loop is used to air-condition nearby buildings like the Polygon Gallery and the Pipe Shop event space, Magnuson said.

“I think it’s really important for cities to provide spaces for the community to come together and play,” he added. “We just have to make sure that when we create these entities, we do it as efficiently as possible.”

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